Universities Offer 'Drone Journalism' Courses Teaching Unmanned Aerial News Gathering

Joe Schoffstall
By Joe Schoffstall | February 23, 2013 | 3:43 PM EST

As privacy rights are being debated on the usage of drones, two college journalism programs are experimenting with drones as a method of gathering news. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drone Journalism Lab and the University of Missouri's Drone Journalism Program are the first two schools to offer such courses in the country.

The University of Missouri's drone lab, NIMBUS, launched in February and secured a $25,000 grant from the university to build custom drones with the help of a local NPR affiliate. Nebraska's program has been in place since 2011.

Fast Company writes of the University of Nebraska's lab:

One story published by the University of Nebraska program used drones to document an ongoing drought. The University's drone lab, NIMBUS, provided several UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] to the journalists to explore the story. "We turned all flight operations over to Carrick Detweiler, a professor of computer science at UNL and cofounder of the NIMBUS Lab. He flew the lab's Ascending Technologies Falcon 8 UAV, a $25,000 aircraft with eight rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera on the front. Detweiler had experience with the vehicle and with flying it," said Matthew Waite of the Drone Journalism Lab.

"We talked about what we wanted to see from the air before going up and we left Detweiler to fly the UAV. That's an important point. The pilot of the UAV is responsible for the safety of the vehicle and anyone around it. So the pilot needs to be left alone to fly, not take over-here-now-over-here directions from a journalist. During battery changes, we talked briefly about what we were getting, and that was it."

Drone Journalism students at Missouri are using the UAV's to put together multimedia packages covering prairie burns.

"In an attempt to use drones in new and emerging ways, [our] program is hoping to use several drones to capture aerial video footage of the prairie burn while it is in progress and utilize that footage as part of a multimedia story about prairie burns in mid-Missouri," student Robert Partyka told Fast Company.

He added, "Drones tend to have a negative connotation in today's media. The public mostly hears the word drone when associated with war and destruction. However, drone technology can be used in many other aspects, including field reporting. Part of this project's goal is to discover how best to utilize this technology in the field of journalism."

However, some lawmakers are not too fond of the idea of using drones to gather news. Missouri State Rep. Casey Guernsey introduced a bill that would prohibit their use in agricultural areas.

"If they want to learn about it, that's perfectly fine. If we are moving into an age of news agencies using drones to collect information on private citizens, I'm definitely concerned about that," Guernsey told Gateway Journalism Review.

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