Drones are generating buzz, but drone journalism in the USA remains grounded – at least for now.

“It is a really weird and shifting landscape, especially for media organizations,” says Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. He founded the lab in November 2011.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits the use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, including journalism. However, Congress ordered the FAA to safely integrate civil unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by September 2015.

“We all want clear, easy-to-understand and easy-to-comply-with rules of the road,” Waite says.

In March, an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board dismissed the FAA’s $10,000 fine against an entrepreneur who used a drone to shoot promotional video. The judge said the FAA did not have an enforceable rule. The FAA appealed the decision to the full safety board. The agency has said it aims to issue rules by the end of the year.

A group of leading news organizations filed a brief with the NTSB on Tuesday in support of the entrepreneur. The FAA’s ban violates the First Amendment’snewsgathering protection, they say.

Drone Journalism Lab
Professor Matt Waite shows a Parrot AR Drone.
Photo credit: Drone Journalism Lab

As drone journalism waits in the wings, Waite gives a rundown of what it is.

On drone journalism: “It is using small, unmanned aerial vehicles to gather photo, video or data as an act of journalism,” Waite says. “They are able to get in the air quickly at a very low cost and get a perspective on a news event that would really greatly enhance people’s understanding of how big or how serious a situation is. Getting even a few hundred feet in the air would be extraordinarily advantageous in the aftermath of a tornado.”

On the size of a drone: The FAA is working on regulations for small systems, which they define as 55 pounds or less, Waite says. “Fifty-five pounds is enormous compared to the types most folks are experimenting with for journalism, filmmaking and commercial photography. We’re talking more in the realm of maybe 3 to 10 pounds.”

On the power source of a drone: The vast majority of them are battery-powered, but there are gas-powered models, Waite says. “They are a big leap up in complexity and cost — and I know of no one using them — but they do exist. The batteries are anywhere from the size of a king-sized candy bar to the size of a brick on a house.”

On the cost of a drone: “Not to sound like a used car salesman, but I can find a drone that fits your budget,” Waite says. “There are little toy models with relatively decent cameras that you can get for as little as $80. A lot of people are fascinated with a $300 device with a high-def camera that you can fly with your iPhone or Android device. I’ve seen $60,000 and $100,000 devices.”

On getting a drone: “You got a credit card and the Internet?” Waite asks. “Any number of companies can sell this to you.”

But Waite cautions that the FAA has banned the commercial use of drones. “The FAA says it has regulatory control,” he adds.

On using a drone: There are two groups who can use drones — hobbyists and the government, Waite says. Hobbyists can use them for fun but have to follow rules, he says.

“Government agencies – anyone from a dog catcher to customs and border patrol — can apply for a certificate of authorization,” Waite says. “It will allow a government entity to fly at a specific location for about a two-year period within a certain altitude, depending on where you are. Those permits are not easy to get.”

On the state of drone journalism: Some news organizations are very interested, but there is potential for problems, Waite says. “There are legal hassles. There are no rules in place right now to govern safety. There is no insurance requirement.”

On the future of drone journalism: The FAA is moving very slowly, Waite says. “The soonest that you’re going to see limited commercial use being possible without the FAA coming after you is November 2015. It’s probably more reasonable to assume early 2016.

“Once that happens, you’re going to see an industry appear overnight,” Waite says. “There are just hundreds and hundreds of applications of this that will suddenly be possible and journalism will be one.”

On drone journalism resources: There is the Drone Journalism Lab blog, and there is the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, Waite says.

He adds, “I just want to caution anybody interested in this that they really need to be aware of what the law is and what their state legislature is doing.”