Drone debate turns skeptical eye to the sky PDF E-mail

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.”

Cool? Yes.

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

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