< Drones: Coming Soon to a Sky Near You?

Transcript

Friday, January 13, 2012

[SOUND OF CROWD PROTESTS/UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Last month, a crowd of some 25,000 in a Moscow square were protesting the conduct of recent parliamentary elections, when some people saw hovering in the sky a pulsating object with five tendrils, a UFO. Actually, it was a remote-controlled camera platform, a drone. 

Very soon, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is expected to update the regulations governing the use of small drones here. Once limited to the realm of high tech espionage and stealth military strikes, now you can buy unmanned, and presumably unarmed,  aircraft at your local mall.

Matt Waite teachers journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he recently launched the Drone Journalism Lab. He says that once only deep pocketed news outlets could put eyes in the skies, but even they didn't have, and may never have, access to the technology that's rolling out today.

MATT WAITE:

In July, I went to a digital mapping conference out in San Diego. There was a European company called Gatewing that had a fully autonomous aircraft with a high resolution camera in it, and they had this product video that is absolutely mindblowing.

[CLIP]:

ANNOUNCER:

Imagine being able to achieve highly accurate mapping whenever and wherever needed. Introducing the Gate Wing X100.

[END CLIP]

MATT WAITE:

One guy pulls this aircraft out, puts it on a catapult, pulls out a tablet computer, draws a little square around the area he wants it to fly and where it's gonna take off from and  where he wants it to land. He puts that information into the aircraft, launches it in the air, and the aircraft just goes and does it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And you took out your credit card immediately.

MATT WAITE:

Yeah, I did. I was like –

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

- how much?  And they said, it’s 65,000 dollars and it’s completely illegal in the United States.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mm-

MATT WAITE:

And I put my credit card away.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And then you saw this thing being sold at the mall. And it didn't cost 65,000 dollars.

MATT WAITE:

Just a few hundred dollars. And I actually had heard about it and got on the Internet. And, sure enough, here are all these people who are taking this thing and modifying it and adding these cameras that were producing just really stunning images.

The applications for reporting were immediately apparent to me. Imagine having that available to you in Joplin, Missouri after the tornadoes went through there. You could fly the entire damage path, then go to the local property authorities and get a map of every property in the city, lay it down over top of that image of the ground, and you could do really interesting data on what was damaged.

Let's say you're a reporter in Japan and you’re not exactly interested in tromping around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but you could take a drone and have an onboard Geiger counter taking readings. Things like that, I don't think, have been explored at all.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The Gatewing, you said, is illegal in the United States, as opposed to this little Parrot AR thing that sold at Brookstone. 

MATT WAITE:

Which is only slightly legal. The law, as it stands right now, is that remote control aircraft pilots can’t fly near people or go above 400 feet. They also cannot use them for commercial purposes. Journalism is considered a commercial purpose.

The law has not caught up to the fact that there are these inexpensive aircraft that can do commercial things. And there are industries that are just waiting to jump in and make a lot of money doing this.  Agriculture, oil and gas – everybody is really interested to hear what the FAA has to say this month.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So if oil companies get to use it, then maybe journalists can hop on that back.

MATT WAITE:

I am hoping for that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Given the proscriptions of the law, what kind of technology are you working with now at the Lab?

MATT WAITE:

We've got the quadricopter that we're playing around with. Quadripcopter has four rotors on it.  You’ll hear people talking about quadricopters, hexicopters and octocopters, four, six and eight rotors.

Honestly, I’m finding the AR Drone to be pretty unstable and pretty underpowered. I’ve seen other filmmakers using hexicopters and octocopters with a digital SLR camera on there, to be able to produce some really stunning images. When we will actually get to cover news with it, that really depends on the FAA. 

The other things that we're looking at are balloons. There's a group of people called The Public Laboratory. They produced some imagery out of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They sent this balloon up, and you can see in this image that they took where the oil boom was and where the oil was behind it, looking all horrible and then relatively clean water on the other side of it. For about 100 dollars’ worth of materials, it was pretty stunning. And there's no FAA rules about that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

About a balloon.

MATT WAITE:

Yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] Do you have any concerns or fears about drone technology, particularly the privacy aspect?

MATT WAITE:

I have a litany of concerns. People’s reactions tend to be on a continuum. One side is this is completely creepy, and then there’s the other side of this is amazingly cool. And I think that you are naïve if you don't believe this is just a little bit creepy. Most people are uncomfortable by law enforcement having an ever-present eye in the sky.

Since there are these things like the remote control platforms that you can get in any hobby store, plus the sophisticated cameras that we all have in our smart phones, now you have the people watching the police, watching the people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Isn’t that better than when just the police were watching the people?

MATT WAITE:

I think that is good, and I think if you try to limit the upside of tools because of these perceived downsides, I think you really limit what the future can hold.

What I'm interested in doing, and I haven’t

had time to do this yet, is go back and look at what we were writing about when long telephoto lenses were introduced. You wouldn't send a photographer to somebody's home and try to take pictures with a long telephoto lens into the backyard.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Unless you’re Britney Spears.

MATT WAITE:

Most of us will agree that's a pretty disgusting violation of her privacy. Just because you can do that with a drone doesn't make it anymore right. Trespassing is still trespassing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Matt, thank you very much.

MATT WAITE:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Matt Waite is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab.