April 3, 2014, Berlin

Drone journalism – set for take-off

Is drone journalism evolving into an independent reporting genre? Will media companies soon be using swarms of drones? And do we need a code of ethics for drone journalism? The workshop on 25 February provided answers to these and many other questions.

Although it’s still unusual to see a drone in action, our fascination for the photos taken by these unmanned flying objects isn’t really all that new. They provide us with those “God’s-eye” perspectives that make us want to climb mountains and build aircraft, said journalist and communication scientist Max Ruppert. As the prices of drones come down, this perspective is becoming an increasingly interesting option for many other applications, including journalism.

But journalism was not the sector to provide key incentives for the development of drone technology. As is the case with many other technologies, these unmanned flight craft were originally developed for military purposes. Ruppert prefers to call them “copters“ because of the military, especially war associations with the word “drone”. A quadrocopter with camera – which is a drone powered by four rotors – retailing at less than EUR 100 is currently the most affordable option.

New tool, new genre?

A select few pioneers are currently testing possible applications for drone technology in journalism. Data journalist Lorenz Matzat believes that, above all, they are interesting as data collection machines. Fitted with sensors, drones can fly over landfill sites or nuclear power stations and check official statistics. They can also be used for applications on water or land. “We’re going to see much more automated journalism in future, including the use of algorithms to generate reports from the data that the drones have collected,” predicted Matzat.

Drone pilot Fabian Werba demonstrates a quadrocopter flight at Münzsalon in Berlin. The drone can fly at 50 km/h and broadcast live images for around 15 minutes.

But is drone journalism an independent genre? Or are drones simply an additional element of the journalist’s toolkit? Illustrative material is provided by RBB, which uses a drone to take city portraits for its “Brandenburg von oben“ series. Max Ruppert believes that drones offer far greater potential for new methods of storytelling. However, this would also mean editors having the courage to move away from conventional formats and attitudes.

Live footage is another possible application, according to Matzat. Flying a drone over a nuclear waste convoy or a demonstration could provide journalists with much deeper insights. Drones would help journalism to keep pace, technologically-speaking, with security and public order agencies because they already use them for surveillance purposes. According to one discussion at the event, the refusal to use this new technology would mean drones putting the “power of knowledge” into the hands of the few.

Inexpensive drones, legal issues

The development of drone use in journalism will depend on the economic and technical parameters among others. If the price of drones continues to decline, media companies could soon be sending them out in swarms because they’d be able to shoulder the loss of the occasional drone. However, even the professional models are still causing problems, such as a battery life that restricts the drone’s range to 20 minutes of flying time. Drones are often controlled by a pilot and a camera man, which means they need two people to operate them. So the use of drones doesn’t automatically reduce personnel costs.

Many drones are flying into unfamiliar legal territory. Scenarios such as investigative patrol flights across private land or events are prohibited. Commercial users always have to obtain a flight permit from the competent aviation authority. “In Berlin you have to state a time window for flying. In other states you have to obtain a permit for every single flight,” said Fabian Werba. The media design company that he founded takes drone footage for movies and TV. However, it’s almost impossible to take live footage in states where individual flight permits have to be obtained. Amateur users face fewer restrictions.

Then, the participants of the workshop at Münzsalon in Berlin discussed how we can protect our private sphere and personal rights. The paparazzi often ignore the rules, which is bringing old questions back into play. Journalists are also discussing initial concepts for drone ethics. And the technical race will continue. While journalists may soon be carrying mobile camera drones in their backpacks, celebrities could well have jammers in their handbags as standard equipment.

Report: David Pachali