House of Lords looks to media regulators for guidance on drone journalism

Members of the House of Lords visit Cranfield University's RPAS program during a fact-finding mission.

Members of the House of Lords visit Cranfield University's RPAS program during a fact-finding mission.

While acknowledging the drone is an important tool for journalism, members of Parliament in the United Kingdom stress the need for an open dialogue with the public on the pros and cons of media drones.

The House of Lords Subcommittee on the EU Internal Market, Infrastructure, and Employment, recommended in a report published today that UK media regulators should take the initiative on talking to the public about drone journalism.

"While journalists can use RPAS to enhance the reporting of important events, they can also be used to invade people’s privacy," the subcommittee said in its report. "UK media regulators should initiate a public consultation on the appropriate use of RPAS by the media, with a view to providing clear guidance."

The subcommittee was tasked with scrutinizing the European Union's plans for drone regulations. In late July, it called for evidence to answer questions about remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) safety and protection, how data protection rules will apply to RPAS, and whether the current liability and insurance framework for RPAS is sufficient.

[Read up on the evidence submitted by the Professional Society of Drone Journalists here.]

In oral testimony, academic lawyer David Goldberg noted the newsgathering exemption under the Data Protection Act would still apply to journalism drones.

"However, it is in my opinion absolutely the case that the responsible press should be facilitated to use these devices simply as flying cameras," Goldberg said. "Therefore, there is again very little difference, it seems to me, between the current situation and the situation if one is using an RPAS, because public‑interest journalism requires not merely the right to distribute the information but also the means to gather it."

Peter Lee, a technology lawyer with the firm Taylor Vinters, also acknowledged the current exemptions for journalistic work, but voiced concerns that the Civil Aviation Authority would have to act quickly to ensure drone journalists could have rapid access to news events. Absent the ability to respond quickly to disasters and protests, Lee warned that rogue drone users may fill the void in an effort to provide news to sites that publish user-generated content, such as Guardian Witness.

"Then, regarding user‑generated content, there needs to be clear guidance, probably from [UK communications regulator] Ofcom, around how acceptable user‑generated content from drones is, and who is responsible or liable for user‑generated content when it is posted on an intermediary platform such as GuardianWitness," Lee told the subcommittee.

Following Lee's statement, MP Gloria Hooper questioned who would have the ability to police widespread use of small, inexpensive drones.

"I understand that the Professional Society of Drone Journalists has suggested that 'in general, the freedom of the press can be preserved by guaranteeing permission to fly small RPAS, in a responsible manner, at sufficiently low altitudes over public land,'" Hooper noted. "Is it not the policing of that that is the difficulty, and who is going to do it?"

"It is, and that is why this new move by the CAA for a Congested Areas Operating Safety Case that it has instigated, which I think will come into effect within three months, should allow people who can prove that they are safe and have an airworthy platform to do what helicopters can do at the moment in built‑up areas: fly over people and take images," Lee said.

Other than Ofcom oversight of drone journalism, the subcommittee recommended instituting a manufacturing standard for drones similar to CE marking, creating a database to track and manage drone traffic, and limiting access to "high risk sites" through the use of geofencing technology.

MP and Committee Chairman Detta O'Cathain said that the risks of civilian drone proliferation, while high, could be managed through the application of technology.

"It would just take one disastrous accident to destroy public confidence and set the whole industry back," O'Cathain wrote in a statement. "So we need to find ways to manage and keep track of drone traffic. That is why a key recommendation is that drone flights must be traceable, effectively through an online database, which the general public could access via an app. We need to use technology creatively, not just to manage the skies, but to help police them as well."

Posted on March 5, 2015 .