Independent operators, researchers lead drone journalism innovation, but regulations and media environment present challenge

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a January hearing about the future of unmanned aviation. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a January hearing about the future of unmanned aviation. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones, show great promise in improving the quality of news coverage by offering unique perspectives and uncovering hidden data. It also has the potential to make aerial filming much safer than is possible with manned helicopters.

The drone journalism community, at least in the United States, has for some time now been frustrated by the regulatory and legal restrictions for UAS, despite the technology having reached mainstream accessibility. As a new paper by researchers at the University of Utah points out, the future of drone journalism might be bleak if those obstacles are not overcome.

In the paper, Avery Holton and Sean Lawson, both assistant professors of communication, and Cynthia Love, a judicial clerk at the 10th Circuit of Appeals, note that regulatory progress up to this point is "resting largely on the continued push among a relatively few journalists and private citizens willing to risk the ire of the FAA to gather and share the news."

Those individuals, including hobbyists and academic media researchers, also are at the vanguard of drone journalism innovation. On the other side of the fence, is the FAA, which Lawson wrote on twitter will need to change its policies to allow drone journalism to take off:

Some major news organizations took part in one amicus brief to an important court decision, but despite having a substantial interest in more permissive regulations, none have pushed legal boundaries or engaged the public in a conversation about UAS policy.

Holton, Lawson, and Love further write that by relying on crowd-funded footage from amateur UAS pilots, news organizations have been "exploiting their free labor, putting them at greater risk, and potentially putting people on the ground at greater risk."

The paper, "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities, barriers, and the future of 'drone journalism'," was published in the December 6 in the journal Journalism Practice.

Posted on December 20, 2014 .