Knight Foundation grant to help UNL drone journalism lab take flight

"Drone journalism" – the idea that small, unmanned aircraft can be used to gather photos, video, and data for use by journalists – is hot. So hot that journalism professor Matt Waite has been interviewed by news outlets around the world, including Japan, Australia, Hungary, Germany, and France, since launching a "drone journalism lab" at

Matt Waite became a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in August and founded the school’s drone journalism lab shortly thereafter.

“Drone journalism” – the idea that small, unmanned aircraft can be used to gather photos, video, and data for use by journalists – is hot.

So hot that journalism professor Matt Waite has been interviewed by news outlets around the world, including Japan, Australia, Hungary, Germany and France, since launching a “drone journalism lab” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln late last year.

And hot enough that the Knight Foundation announced today that it has awarded a $50,000 Knight Prototype grant that Waite says will fund the “lab” for several years, paying for equipment, maintenance, training and travel.

But at the same time, “drone journalism” is also essentially nonexistent. It’s illegal, at least in the United States, and at least until September 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is set to issue new regulations allowing some commercial use of drones.

“Things have been very, very positive, and it’s a provocative idea,” Waite said in a March interview. “An idea on the cusp of being something great, but it’s on the wrong side of the cusp.”

“If they’re doing this in Belgium, we’re going to be able to do this here soon,” he said. “If the technology is there, holy crap.”

On his drone journalism blog, Waite provided the example of a video from Poland (above) that a man took by mounting a camera to a remote control helicopter in order to gather images of a protest. 

The idea

Waite’s idea for a drone journalism lab started at a digital mapping conference in San Diego last summer. He was walking through the convention center when he saw a display by Gatewing, a company that markets drones as a “rapid terrain mapping tool” that can deliver high-res imagery of a defined area, on demand and within minutes.

Waite watched a demonstration and immediately thought of fires, tornadoes and hurricanes. About using photos and data to convey the scope and breadth of a tragedy in a way that has, until now, required access to a helicopter, or has been simply impossible.

“Every story that had any kind of spatial extent that I’d ever covered in my life, in my 10 or 12 years as a reporter, just came washing through my head,” he said.

He approached the Gatewing representative and tried to buy one. Upon hearing, “It’s $65,000 and illegal in the U.S.,” he put his credit card back in his wallet. But he didn’t stop thinking about it.

On November 29, Waite pitched the idea for the drone journalism lab to Gary Kebbel, who at the time was the dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. On December 2, Waite launched a Tumblr site for the lab and introduced it to the world by tweet. Four hours later, he jumped on a plane to attend News Foo, a “sorta-kinda conference” on “the future of news.” Shortly after landing in Phoenix, he signed on to pitch and present about drone journalism. By the morning of December 4, the Washington Post had written about it.

With the buzz already underway, the lab suddenly needed to play catch-up. Hot Type Consulting, Waite’s and Chase Davis‘ news application development company, donated $1,000 to the University of Nebraska Foundation, and the lab bought its first basic-model drone kit.

It has since been crashed numerous times.

The lab

Drone Journalism Lab student researcher Ben Kreimer (left) and Matt Waite (right) demonstrate a remote control helicopter earlier this year.

The lab isn’t a class unto itself, as many have assumed. Rather, Waite and Kebbel consider drones a “tool” that helps teach and build on basic reporting skills.

“Could we teach ‘smart phone journalism?’ ” Waite said, drawing an analogy to another journalism “tool.” “Sure we could. Should we? I don’t think so.”

That’s the way senior journalism and ethnic studies major Ben Kreimer sees it, too. He’s not sure how he’ll use his degree, but said: “I’m most interested in journalism as a set of tools that I can use in a broad range of work.”

The drone journalism lab “is way out of left field in a way, so I never thought I’d be doing something like this,” he said. “Within the journalism school, it’s kind of a surprise, but with Matt it’s not. But that’s what I like about the journalism school; they’re really open to this kind of unexplored journalism practice.”

Essentially, the “lab” involves research conducted by Waite and several (currently, three, including Kreimer) undergraduate students, who will have work-study jobs, supported by UNL’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences Program. Waite describes the lab as a “thought experiment” that includes both practical aspects – building the drones out of kits, and the logistics of flying them – and exploring the ethical, legal, privacy, and safety issues that surround drones.

“We are making it up as we go along,” he said.

“We’re not saying that drone journalism is the panacea to everything,” Kebbel said. “We’re saying drone journalism is a new tool that we don’t know a lot about and needs to be studied.”

The ick factor

Much of that study will focus on ethics.

Since launching the idea for the lab, Waite has seen a variety of reactions to “drone journalism,” generally falling on a continuum from “Robots with cameras – cool!” to “I am not comfortable with this at all.” Several people have asked Waite about flying drones onto private property to peek in windows and other similar scenarios.

On the one hand, Waite says, “What about a drone makes you think the rules have changed at all?” On the other, Waite acknowledges the argument that widespread access to inexpensive drones might “cause us as a society to change and reevaluate our collective thoughts” on how they can and should be used.

“My goal in the lab is by the time we are able to launch these things legally, we will have an ethical framework in place for what is a good use and what is a bad use,” he said. And both journalists and the general public will know what those “ground rules” are.

On the continuum, Waite falls somewhere in the middle. “This is really cool, but it’s also pretty creepy,” he said. “If you think this is just cool, you’re pretty naïve. If you think this is just creepy, you’re missing the point.”


To read more about Matt Waite, check out our profile: “UNL’s Waite is ‘a kid in a candy store’ as tech-focused journalism professor“.


Credits: Video from Kanał użytkownika latajacakamera on YouTube. Photos of Matt Waite and Ben Kreimer courtesy of Waite. Headshot of Ben Kreimer from Drone Journalism Lab blog.


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