Drone and UAS use among journalists remains tightly restricted, or banned outright, in many countries. But despite highly-restrictive regulations, recent innovations point to a future where drones can provide the images and data to make "immersion journalism" possible.
These were just some of the conclusions of Stijn Postema, a freelance journalist and journalism lecturer at several universities, who recently published his thesis "News Drones: An Auxiliary Perspective." Developments in the past several years also seem to suggest that in the future, drone expertise will become less of a specialty, and more of an integral part of the digital journalist's toolbox.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Postema more about his research findings. The following is part of an email conversation with the journalist and educator:
MS: Your research mentions strict rules on drones in the Netherlands. Could you describe the climate for drones in the Netherlands, and the restrictions that journalists face there?
SP: For professional use, a drone operator needs a certificate. This certificate can be obtained if the drone operator has a license (1) if the drone is officially approved as safe (2) and if the drone operator has written an approved Operations Manual.
The operator always has to keep the drone in eye sight. He can only fly at day time, he has to stay 150 meters away from crowds, buildings, high ways.
For recreational use no certificate is necessary and the drone doesn't need to be approved. During flight, the same rules apply for pro's and amateurs. This is only since April 2015. Before that, the recreational drone operator had more freedom, he could fly higher, for example.
Before April 2015 a professional drone operator had to inform 5 different organisations that he was about to fly - weeks before the actual flight. Completely unworkable for journalists reporting breaking news, of course. Fortunately, that is not necessary anymore. And I like to think that my Dutch article Let the recreational drone rules apply to journalists and the strong lobby thereafter of the Dutch Journalism Foundation NVJ, had a hand in that.
Obtaining a certificate is expensive and cheap drones will not be approved as safe easily. That makes it is nearly impossible to fly a cheap drone commercially.
The government is thinking about allowing drones up to 4 kilograms to fly without license for professional use, but has so far not taken a stance.
MS: One of the conclusions of the paper is that drones will be incorporated into the journalist's standard tool kit, meaning it is not likely that drone journalism will become an occupation. How should drone journalism specialists prepare for a future where everyone has a drone?
SP: Everyone has a camera, but not everyone can be a professional cameraman - same goes for the drone. Will drone journalism be a future specialist occupation? You can be a specialist if technology or legislation creates the specialism for you: if it's hard to fly a drone, there will be specialists. If it's expensive to obtain a certificate, there will be specialists. If it's expensive to buy a high quality kit, there will be specialists. If it requires programming skills to gather data with a drone [there will be specialists].
It's likely that some camera journalists will use a drone regularly and therefore will be considered specialists. But they aren't full time drone journalists. The drone is used as an auxiliary tool, enhancing their practice, to distinguishing their work from their colleagues.
MS: Was there one or more findings that came as a surprise?
SP: It was surprising that traditional media are so slow and cautious to adopt new technology. An explanation might be that they are too afraid to do something that will hurt their reputation. And I don't doubt traditional media inherit this tense attitude to their crumbling industry – but wouldn't it be a relief if media would more often be less obedient to western governments, and act on journalistic merits first?
What further surprised me was that the drone has a potential to be disruptive in the filming industry, replacing both cranes and helicopters up to a certain level.