Drone Journalism Takes Off in Missouri

A Drone Journalism Program explores the ethics and applications of drones in science reporting.

by / May 16, 2013

Tanya Roscorla and Paul Williams bring you the story. 

Here at the University of Missouri, you can take a class where you can learn how to fly a drone. But it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Students in the Science Investigative Reporting class fly drones near prairie fires and snow geese so they can really show what’s happening.

"Nothing is a replacement for knocking on doors, interviewing people, looking at data and just, like, putting the pieces together that way," said Brendan Gibbons, a senior in Science and Agricultural Journalism at the University of Missouri. "But what this does do is provide a different, um, perspective on things from above."

Technically known as unmanned aircraft systems, drones capture video through a GoPro mounted with a kitchen sponge and rubber bands. 

"It really marries a couple of different technologies," said Matthew Dickinson, system administrator and instructor as well as the “Drone Guy” in the Information Technology Program at the university. "You’ve kind of got the aerodynamics, you’ve got the electronics, you’ve got the media side, the computer science side and then how to fit it all together, and at the end of the day, you just have to have fun with them."

When drones crash, the student journalists replace busted parts and take more serious problems to the IT instructor, aka the drone guy on campus. But whether they can fly at all for professional journalism has yet to be determined by state and federal law.

"At the moment, it’s really a grey area, so trying to work within the law of what people know, there is no, you know, hard definition of right or wrong," Dickinson said. "Some people get away with doing stuff, some people don’t. There’s no real, um, concrete guidelines to follow." 

"Being among the first to try to apply this technology to journalism, we have a responsibility to do it right, to do it ethically, responsibly, legally, um, and with a public service motive," said Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism at the University of Missouri.

"I was very skeptical at first," Gibbons said. "Um, what I knew about drones wasn’t really good so far. I’d only heard about drones through the covert drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And those were the only associations I had with it." 

But as this class explores the ethics and applications of drones in journalism, they’ve discovered that drones are valuable tools that could have other civilian applications. 

"At the end of the day, I can see the likes of, you know, a major package delivery company using this to deliver a package to your doorstep," Dickinson said. "Or somebody needs medication in a rural area; why can’t this pick it up rather than them having to drive to the pharmacy? Or I want a pizza delivered; my drone drops it off."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.

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