Q&A: Matt Waite on the founding of the Drone Journalism Lab

Last week, Prof. Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced the founding of the Drone Journalism Lab, dedicated to exploring the use of unmanned aircraft to do journalism.

Waite used to work at the St. Petersburg Times, where he used technology to cover environmental issues and developed the Pulitzer Prize winning website, Politifact.

I conducted an email interview with Waite to learn more about the project. You can read the transcript below, but here are my quick takeaways:

  • Waite believes drones already present an affordable way to cover disasters and other stories, but the go-to technology and the rules of the road have not been worked out yet.
  • The lab is in its infant stages, and is still determining exactly what it will do and how it will be financed.
  • But the work could involve building drones, teaching students to use drones and writing and speaking about the ethics of the whole enterprise.
  • Waite says its "foolish to believe" drones won't be misused, and says thinking about legal and ethical constraints is one of his top priorities.
  • Waite says he can't rule out government or military involvement, but promises transparency.
  • A survey of the Platte River is penciled in as the lab's first classroom experiment.

It must be said: I know Matt. We belong to the same professional organization. In many ways, I've modeled my work on his. I root for him to succeed. In short, I'm biased. So, if you think I'm in the bag and went soft here, feel free to toss in a comment or question below and we'll try to keep him hopping.

What is the goal of the drone journalism lab?

The goals of the lab are split in two: First, how can journalists use drones and aerial platforms to do reporting? What drones? What stories? What are the possibilities? Second, and I think this is really important, how can journalists use them responsibly? What are the ethics? What are the legalities? Safety? My hunch is that traditional ideas of ethics are going to apply -- you don't use long lenses to take pictures of people in their houses, so why would you fly a drone up to their window? But I think there are interesting questions of balancing the public's right to know versus government claims of security and safety. Where do those lines fall? The sooner we start having these conversations and the sooner we start thinking about it, the sooner we can have a voice in regulatory discussions and have answers for critics who may have the wrong idea of what drone journalism is really about.

I know about Predator drones. And I know about the crappy remote control helicopter the guy in my office buzzes around. But you must be aiming for something in between. How close is the technology?

The tech is at a tantalizing point where it's in some respects there and in some respects right on the cusp of being there. On the lower ends, the first drone we're going to get is a Parrot AR Drone, a quadricopter that you can control with your smart phone. I'm going to mod it to hold a GoPro HD camera and we're in business with a drone mounted camera. There's loads of videos on YouTube of hobbyists doing this and the results they're getting are amazing. A Parrot drone and a Go Pro camera will run you right around $600. That's cheap. And it's about the size of a large backpack. And, given that you can control it with a smart phone, an ideal rig for a reporter to take out to a town blown apart by a tornado or hurricane.

But it's limited. It's really just a photo/video platform. On the higher end, I've got my eye on a drone I saw at the ESRI Users Conference in San Diego this past June called the Gatewing X100. It's fully autonomous. You tell it, via a tablet device, where you are taking off from, where you want it to land, and the area you want photographed and it takes off and does it. When it returns, you pop out the storage card, plug it into the tablet and it stitches the images together into a geo-rectified orthophoto. In short, with this drone, you could do on demand imagery of an area. Again, think of a town blown apart by a tornado. You could get high resolution imagery of the ground quickly that you could then layer with property records or on the ground reports. That drone runs about $65,000 and the FAA hasn't issued rules yet on how, when or where something like this is legal. But, the LA Times reported this past weekend that the agency is going to in the new year, so the doors are opening as we speak.

What kind of response did you get from the crowd when you spoke this past weekend at the News Foo conference?

Interestingly, I think the reaction from the News Foo audience was an interesting gauge on what I can expect from the public. Because it was a tech-heavy audience, everyone saw the potential -- I don't think anyone said that this is a dumb/bad/misguided idea with no potential. But News Foo had a number of tech people very interested in and sensitive to privacy issues and they were quite wary. They immediately went to TMZ+Lindsay Lohan as an example of how drones could be misused.

So when I started thinking about this idea, I immediately thought that people would rightfully be wary of this and that the sooner we started talking about ethics and laws, the sooner we could have answers for criticisms and guidelines to balance the public's right to know and people's expectations of privacy. And, more importantly, I think we'll be able to identify what's a good use and what isn't. I think it's foolish to believe that drones in civilian life won't be misused. A court is going to throw out a criminal case because of an overzealous police drone operator some day. It's going to happen. Every tool law enforcement has ever been given has been misused by someone in some way. The same could be said for people in general. And as predictable as that is, so is some news organization landing in the Poynter/CJR/Nieman/media criticism crosshairs for misusing drones.

What I'm trying to do now, before we can even push this very far forward, is set up some guidelines or a framework for decisions on when to use drones or not use drones. We'll look at the past, at other industries, at how we've handled other leaps in technology to do journalism and try to port those over to drones for reporting. I can't stop someone from misusing a drone. It's foolish to think I can. But I can get as much information out there on how to do this right as I can. And I think seeing and hearing the News Foo crowd's concerns was great -- it told me we're on the right track thinking about these ethical and legal issues even before we start flying aircraft around.

Why are you taking this on and what will be your role?

I'm taking this on because I'm fascinated by the use of remote sensing data in journalism. I think I'm the first journalist to ever use satellite imagery analysis techniques to do a story, and I was among the first in the late 90s to be using GPS devices to gather data for journalism. This is just an extension of that. Covering tornadoes and hurricanes in my career, I was frustrated by my inability to gather data on such a vast spatial extent.

I think drones -- small, cheap, easy to use vehicles that can fit in a small bag and carried into the field by a reporter -- offer a major opportunity to improve certain kinds of reporting. My role is whatever it needs to be. I'm founding the lab, trying to raise funds, I'll be doing research and I'll be incorporating this into classes in the very near future. So the answer to what is my role is yes.

How is your lab financed? What's the size of the staff, and the budget?

We're just getting started - I mean like hours old just getting started. The staff is me and the budget is a small startup grant of $1,000. We're actively looking for funders and other people interested in this and I think you'll see some things happen very quickly. Given how things are happening quickly with civilian drones now, I wanted to get started, funds or no, staff or no. We'll build and grow and change as we can and as opportunities allow. I've already received three emails from people interested in collaborating and helping since I tweeted about it this morning, so things are happening fast.

Will you solicit or accept funding from the military or other arms of the government?

I've had some conversations with the National Science Foundation about this but just conversations. Funding at research universities is a Byzantine business, and collaborations across departments are common. It would be easy for me to say we'd never solicit funds from the military, but there is a drone lab on campus now working on military drones. Should we not work with them or get help from them or have coffee with them sometime? It's not that easy. Obviously, as a journalism school, we're sensitive to the funding issues and we're going to tread very lightly. For now, we're seeking support elsewhere, but given the nature of university grant funding, I can't say never. I can say we'll be very clear and public about all of it.

What, if any, classroom component will there be?

Over the summer, I will be developing an environmental journalism/data visualization class that will involve this really ambitious project to photograph the Platte River over time. We're planning to incorporate drones into that class -- when it will be offered has yet to be determined. I'm sure I'll find ways to sneak this into other classes too and who knows what the future holds. Is there an entire class to be had on drone journalism? I'm on the fence, to be honest. On the one hand, there's very cool opportunities to do all kinds of new things with drones for reporting. On the other, it's just a tool for reporting. So is it a whole class or is it a module in an existing reporting class? I don't know. It's an interesting question.

Why the Platte River?

There's an existing grant program in place about the Platte and it's health. We're piggybacking on their data.

What news organizations, if any, are doing drone journalism now, and what are the best examples of work in the field?

News Corp's The Daily did some drone video in Tuscaloosa, Ala. that was just amazing. It's an ideal example of what's possible with very little expense or effort.

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