There is growing uncertainty in the air these days over the use and potential abuse of drones.
It’s not a local issue, per se, but it’s a fascinating one. Whether you view these high-tech vehicles as useful eyes in the sky or unlawful “Big Brother” surveillance tools depends entirely on your perspective.
I got an up-close-and personal look at the military version of drones, which now come in all shapes and sizes, a year ago on a whirlwind trip to Florida. Uncle Sam is now sending unmanned aircraft the size of small automobiles into enemy territory, capturing valuable surveillance without putting American pilots in harm’s way. That mission seems to be getting two thumbs up from everyone, except perhaps the Taliban, North Koreans and other potential foe.
More recently, however, the conversation, and much more controversy, has shifted toward a growing domestic drone industry. Rather suddenly, we’ve gone from government agencies patrolling the skies over U.S. borders with unarmed Predator drones to a hobby-like fascination with a remote-controlled birds-eye camera. For $30, plus shipping, you too can buy a toy-like device online from Japan which hovers high overhead with a camera on board.
As a journalist, I have to admit I’m intrigued. Imagine the footage you could get (both in video and still photography format) above a tornado’s path, a raging flood or even an interesting angle above the county fair.
Realizing this may eventually have some potential for journalistic use (even at a weekly newspaper like the News-Register), I sat in on a recent digital media showcase featuring the University of Nebraska’s drone journalism lab, which is being funded by the Knight Foundation. Only because UNL is a research university, students there get to experiment with what one professor called “flying lawn mowers.”
An effective means of capturing images from hard-to-reach places at very little cost? Definitely.
But fraught with danger and potential threats to individual privacy? You bet your bottom line!
While the technology itself already exists to put remote-controlled vehicles up in the sky, the liability and privacy issues involved are complex. It’s a felony, for example, to even fly a camera overhead in Oregon. Thirty-six other states are pushing drone-related legislation, though Nebraska is not among them. Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union is tracking them all.
And in California, stalking laws make it illegal to take pictures with drones. Imagine a celebrity’s nightmare if the paparazzi could legally hover a camera 100 feet above the back-yard pool.
“I think drone journalism is at least 10 years out,” said Matt Waite, a UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications professor. “There are just so many concerns with privacy, safety and FAA regulations.”
Waite powered up a two-foot drone inside a small conference room, demonstrating how simple it is to navigate. That’s the easy part. The more I hear and think about drone journalism, however, I think it’s headed for a crash landing.
KURT JOHNSON can be reached at kjohnson@ hamilton.net
Going mobile not as easy as it seems
Dear readers, “Get in the game. Go mobile!” That was the News-Register’s slogan a little more than a year ago as we set sail on a whole new venture into the mobile realm. With the aid and support of the Nebraska Press Association and a third-party vendor from Wisconsin, we planted our flag on a new frontier, launching a mobile website of our very own. It was a pretty handy tool, we soon discovered, allowing our staff to offer breaking news, photos and even video to anyone carrying a smartphone. Within a few weeks, we had several hundred visitors a day scanning our QR code and checking out our site. The goal was to provide headlines and breaking news of the day, then invite readers to our print or e-edition for more details. All the media trends and Google statistics suggest that was a good strategy for the News-Register. Just as millions of Americans began looking to the World Wide Web for information 15 or so years ago, the paradigm is shifting again, this time toward hand-held mobile devices. The number of smartphones is quadrupling every two years, we have recently learned, and more than 50 percent of online searches are now done on a mobile device. That’s an audience we want to reach. We firmly believe that mobile is now part of the News-Register’s delivery system, though our strategy has hit a little bump in the road. That third-party vendor who promised the world at a Nebraska Press Association retreat right here in Aurora went belly up this month, giving us very little notice. Just like that, the vehicle we had grown to count on as a means of reaching you in a new and high-tech format crashed and burned. We fully intend to launch a new and improved mobile product one day soon, though that will take some time. We appreciate your patience and will keep you posted. This little detour wasn’t terribly expensive, but it was an eye-opener. This new world of social media and digital delivery is in fact ripe with opportunity, though it is also prone to frequent change. As much as many of us grow to count on that new whiz bang smartphone, for example, the reality is that it will wear out, break or become obsolete within two or three years at best. That trend apparently applies to tech-based start-up companies as well. The trick, as newspaper publishers, is figuring out how to find the right partner to keep you on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge, of technology. As always, you can count on getting the printed version of your hometown newspaper in the near and distance future. That is a tried and true tradition not subject to change. We will also continue to post headlines and news briefs on Facebook and Twitter, inviting you to our print and e-edition versions for the rest of the story. As for going mobile, stay tuned.
KURT JOHNSON can be reached at kjohnson@ hamilton.net