Reports of the imminent launch of drone journalism, using model aircraft controlled from smartphones or computers to film inaccessible terrain, is causing some excitement in newsrooms, but it has already raised ethical and civil liberty questions.
Real drone technology of the kind used by military or the police is expensive and only the richest media can afford machines able to carry heavy camera equipment. But even if they were minded to pay, current civil aviation rules in most countries ban unauthorised flights for large unmanned aircraft, particularly in urban areas.
Media with money already invest in helicopters for routine news coverage of traffic flow, natural disasters and other stories that benefit from aerial coverage. However, the development of cheap, lightweight vehicles – costing around 300 Euro – opens the door to aerial journalism for freelance reporters and small media outlets.
Of course, there are practical limits – they can only be used in relatively confined spaces which limits their usefulness – but that might change with European Union plans to open up civil airspace to unmanned drones in the coming years.
The BBC and other major media are already experimenting with drone technology and in Australia, where the law was changed some years ago, broadcasters caused controversy with the use of unmanned flying cameras to film an immigration detention centre.
Although the benefits of the technology are self-evident, particularly for reporting from disaster zones, there is a dark side with fears of erosion of privacy protection and an explosion of unethical and intrusive journalism.
While existing privacy laws should be enough to protect celebrities and public figures from over-enthusiastic and robotic paparazzi, aerial access to schools, hospitals, asylum centres and people’s homes may pose new challenges for media who need to be wary of infringing the rights of vulnerable people.
Drone enthusiasts are keen to encourage responsible use of the technology.
Matthew Schroyer, for instance, has founded the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, and created a drone journalism code of ethics. He argues that the added value of unmanned flying journalism can be enjoyed if people use the technology ethically.
This may be wishful thinking, but there is time for some ethical reflection. Drone journalism will remain grounded for some years until there are changes in laws particularly in the United States and Europe.