The best way to film the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, the Philippines, said Lewis Whyld, a British photographer, was from the air.
But Whyld did not want to beg for a ride on a military helicopter, taking the space of much-needed aid. So he launched a drone into the skies above the city. In addition to shots that showed the scale of the damage, broadcast by CNN recently, his drone discovered two bodies that were later recovered by the authorities, he said in an interview.
“The newspaper was for still images,” said Whyld, who builds his own drones, “but the Internet is for this.”
Whyld, and CNN, are not alone in exploring the potential of drones. The Associated Press and News Corp. have used them to show the scale of large disasters. News Corp. has also used them to shoot sports in Australia. Sophisticated nature documentaries use them to get intimate shots of wildlife. Paparazzi use them to chase celebrities in Europe, and reports suggest they have been used to pursue celebrities in the United States, too.
Drones, or unstaffed aerial systems as many of their handlers prefer to call them, are designed to fly automatically, without skilled pilots. They were largely developed for, and remain associated with, the military. But they are increasingly being used for civilian purposes, including journalism.
The machines have proved most valuable in providing film footage or photography of things that are difficult to reach, like wildlife or geographic formations. In the future, however, their capabilities may be expanded to include sensors that can help with environmental coverage, for instance, by providing readings on air quality.
“What drones give you is anywhere, anytime access to the sky,” said Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired magazine who runs a drone company. “That perspective is something a journalist just wouldn’t have unless he waited for officials, or hired a plane.”
Early this fall the BBC launched an 18-inch, six-rotored unstaffed machine into the sky to report on a high-speed train being planned to travel from London to Manchester. The train is controversial because it would cut through and, some argue, despoil some of the most pristine rural land in England.
“The idea was we needed to get above to give our viewers the full scope of the problem,” said Tom Hannen, who operates the program. Whyld is exploring long-range drones, which can fly 10 or 20 miles from their handler, and new sensors like heat-seeking cameras.
“I’m also thinking about detection devices for chemical weapons, so you could fly into Syria,” he said. “You can do journalism that wasn’t previously possible.”
Regulations, however, have taken a different flight path. In Britain, extensive testing and several thousand dollars are required for permission to fly, Whyld said. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration only allows drone manufacturers and public entities like law enforcement agencies to test the aircraft. The agency will begin wider testing, which should lead to rules for other purposes, such as journalism.
Journalism programs, including those at the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, have started drone journalism courses. Columbia does not teach hands-on skills, but students at Missouri have actually used drones over the Missouri River for a report about hydraulic fracturing and over the prairie for a story about controlled burns. But in August, the FAA ordered journalism schools to stop flights unless they got permission from the agency.
Many drone enthusiasts remain optimistic that restrictions will be loosened because the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires that the FAA safely integrate unstaffed aerial vehicles into United States airspace by 2015. (The agency recently released a map that indicated that journalism could be among interesting potential uses for drones.)
“It is definitely in the early days,” said Fergus Pitt, with the Tow center, “but there is so much potential when the regulations come off.”
Earthflight, a 2011 BBC documentary about birds, offers one vivid example of the technology. A drone with especially small and quiet rotors took astonishing shots of a flock of 2 million flamingos. Whereas a helicopter would have spooked the skittish birds, the narrator explains, “the drone hardly ruffles a feather as it captures a view of the greatest gathering of flamingos seen for 20 years.”
Using drones around people can be problematic. The aircraft, are often heavy, powerful machines. In recent incidents they crashed into skyscrapers in New York and fell to a sidewalk and spun out of control, and into the crowd at a bull-running event in Virginia.
Another concern is that drones, which can sneak into situations not accessible to a regular photographer, will be used to invade privacy, particularly of famous people.
In August, a drone stormed the private wedding in Switzerland of the singer Tina Turner. The same month, a photographer on Coney Island launched a drone to capture footage of the singer Beyoncé on a roller coaster, according to Carlo Allegri, a freelance photographer on assignment for Reuters who took a picture of the aircraft.
The drone was 2 or 3 feet across, and flew autonomously, perhaps by GPS, for about 10 minutes before it returned to its operator, Allegri said.
“It was mesmerizing,” he said.
But Nabiha Syed, a first amendment lawyer in private practice who also works under contract for The New York Times, said it is not likely that drones start an era when cameras will hover outside Alec Baldwin’s window unmolested.
“The idea of privacy is not a new one,” Syed said. “We have grappled with new technologies, like cellphones with cameras, before. We have a thicket of privacy law already and don’t need new laws at this stage.”
Anderson said that whether the FAA has privacy concerns otherwise, the likelihood is that drones will soon become a tool of journalism, for good or ill.
The technology is getting cheaper and better, he said. Soon it will be possible to open an application on an iPhone or iPad, click a map coordinate and have a drone fly to that point with little or no technical skill, he said.
“This is very much like the personal computer. It’s going from industrial machines to personal ones.”