Paper traces origins, complications of drone technology and drone journalism

Alex Gibb.jpg

If you're doing any kind of research into drone journalism, Google or DuckDuckGo is likely your first stop. You'll probably find plenty of news on drone journalism developments happening in pockets around the world, but nothing in the way of a comprehensive piece to tie everything together. The Wikipedia entry for drone journalism acts as a digital adhesive to bind some of these stories together, but it isn't something you can cite as an academic.

Alexandra Gibb, a graduate student in journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who also is a CBC intern and one of the earliest members of, has produced what is perhaps the first ever academic paper on the emergence of drone journalism. Her paper, which was her master's thesis at UBC, was published earlier this month by the Tow Center, which is part of the Columbia School of Journalism.

Its publication coincided with the Tow Center's first ever sensor journalism workshop (information here and here). The connection might not be obvious for some, but since unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones in the media, can be thought of as platforms for a multitude of sensors, drone journalism might actually fall squarely in the wheelhouse of sensor journalism.

Gibb's thesis looks at the evolution of unmanned airborne technologies since the first steam-powered model airplane in ancient Greece, to the most advanced stealth drones used in reconnaissance today. It also examines the first attempts at using unmanned aircraft for news reporting, political activism, and traces these developments as an offshoot of the "maker" movement.

A short excerpt:

"Indeed, drones—particularly those built from scratch—can be equipped with a wide-array of sophisticated and increasingly accessible sensors that allow operators to gather vast amounts of information from the air. For example, gas sensors whiff the air for particles, electronic eavesdroppers listen to and record conversations on the ground, light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems use lasers to create three-dimensional topographical maps, and infrared and hyperspectral sensors detect objects and materials invisible to the human eye (Weinberger, 2012). Most of these sensors can be purchased online for a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, installed on microcontrollers, and programmed to gather and display the desired data. Essentially, any kind of imagery or data that journalists desire can now be gathered by a custom-made news drone quickly and at very little cost, giving them immense freedom to gather information and launch investigations."

Gibb also delves into the legal and ethical complexities, and takes a look at relevant court cases and the current state of unmanned aircraft regulations, interviewing or quoting many experts along the way.


Posted on June 17, 2013 .