As drone technology accelerates, so too does the public’s exposure to the machines. They draw praise and pointed criticism for their use in military operations. They’ve been employed to deliver coffee and drop contraband over prison walls. In the coming years, they just might replace your postman.

They are, and will continue to be, a steady presence in the news industry. But for many media organizations, such ubiquity raises a conundrum: What role should they play in actually reporting the news itself?

That was the question a group of more than 100 journalists and technologists sought to answer April 22 at TechRaking: Elevating the News, hosted at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, California. The event – a collaboration of The Center for Investigative Reporting, the News Lab at Google and Stanford University’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship program – examined how drone technology can affect and assist journalists as they explore new reporting frontiers.

The first step is understanding the laws, said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. Flying a drone for commercial purposes – including journalism – currently violates Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Before reporters can use drones, the federal government must lift or tweak its blanket ban. It’s unclear how long such a development would take, and Osterreicher isn’t holding his breath.

“I’ve looked at the FAA as approaching drones in a bipolar manner,” he said. “You can’t fly them, and we aren’t going to get around to the rulemaking yet.” The bureaucratic process, he added, “is going at a glacial speed.”

Still, drone developers such as 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson are optimistic. In “a golden age of personal storytelling,” the government ought to be nudged toward action by the sheer prevalence of drone technologies, he said. The machines, for all their legal challenges, afford unprecedented autonomy. Lawmakers should recognize that as an opportunity, not a barrier, he said.

“What would you do if you didn’t have to be an operator, but instead a participant in your story?” he asked.

Attendees soon had a chance to find out. In one of Golden Gate Fields’ parking lots, Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for the technology company DJI, conducted a demonstration of his Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 drones for the assembled crowd. As the machines buzzed and dipped, he listed their applications: agricultural mapping, aerial photography, weather monitoring. To demonstrate one machine’s camera and flying capabilities, he snapped a “dronie” – a drone-produced selfie – of the eventgoers.

YouTube video

The afternoon centered on a design sprint in which participants broke into teams to brainstorm ideas about how to implement drone technology in the newsroom. One group, Open Sky, was led by Kenyan journalist Dickens Olewe. After an hour of ideation, the team proposed a coalition in Nairobi, with support from Nairobi University, to challenge the country’s ban on journalists’ use of drones. Another team, LiteBrite, led by Julian March of NBC News, suggested using drones as a means of surveying populations; those who wanted to vote for a law or initiative would signal a drone with a beacon of light or color. A third group, Free and Clear, proposed a Flickr-style repository for Creative Commons drone photography and videos.

TechRaking: Elevating the News is a full-day event – hosted by The Center for Investigative Reporting, the News Lab at Google and Stanford University’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship program – where attendees will hear about best-use cases for drones in journalism, see examples of their use in storytelling and dive into conversations about how drones can be integrated into the airspace, given recent safety and privacy concerns.
At TechRaking: Elevating the News in Berkeley, California, attendees got a demonstration of drone technology in action and discussed creative ways to integrate the machines into journalistic efforts. .Credit: Samaruddin Stewart for Reveal Credit: Samaruddin Stewart for Reveal

The winner ultimately was Drone Hound, led by Reveal Senior Editor Andrew Donohue. The team proposed a technology that would use drones to collect air samples in areas of high pollution – like Oxnard, California – then transmit the findings to a mobile app. Members of an affected community would download the app and be notified when their surrounding area reached elevated pollution levels. The technology, Donohue explained, would amount to a “repeatable endeavor to keep track of pollution over space and time with a drone.”

While TechRaking sparked a robust conversation about drones and journalism, ideas about how to use them will remain just that – ideas – until the machines are legalized. Such uncertainty is part of the TechRaking process, said Joaquin Alvarado, CIR’s CEO. Innovation starts with inquiry.

“How do we create a community that starts to answer the question, ‘How do we incorporate this into our work?’ ” he said. How do we “figure out a scaffolding for this kind of community building to happen in newsrooms?”

“I have high hopes that our state governments and federal governments will get this right,” he said. “We got the Internet done. We got the phone done.”

As for drones: “Why not?”

Correction on Apr 15, 2015

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the leader of the LiteBrite team. The team’s leader was Julian March.

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Byard Duncan was a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He managed Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helped lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.