The use of drones to capture footage during this past week’s spate of tornadoes is drawing fire as First Amendment experts and government officials debate the fine line between journalism and privacy.
The storm began to brew after storm chaser and videographer Brian Emfinger captured video footage of the tornadoes that blasted across Arkansas recently. Writing for Forbes.com, blogger Greg McNeal defended Emfinger, stating:
“Drones are an ideal platform for quickly gathering information in the aftermath of storms and other calamities as they can be quickly deployed by storm trackers like Emfinger. Drones are also an ideal way to conduct search and rescue operations, especially after a tornado when debris may block access to areas where survivors may be found. The speed with which Emfinger deployed his drone shows how it is an obvious tool for first responders.”
The Federal Aviation Administration disagrees, announcing Tuesday that they were launching a probe into Emfinger’s UAV exploits and threatening him with up to a possible $10,000 fine.
Back in January, the FAA told journalism think-tank the Poynter Institute that “there is no gray area.”
“Hobbyists are allowed to use small, radio-controlled crafts under specific guidelines. If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” FAA spokesperson Les Dorr said.
As earlier reported in Drone Life, the questions hovering over the drone journalism debate won’t fly away easily.
“Really the technology is quite neutral,” Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Unit at the University of Nebraska, told Wired. “It is what we choose to do with it that raises the ethical problems here. Given that, I think what you have to look at is, what did the operator do with the device, and was it done with some respect towards privacy?
Despite the threatening skies for drone journalism, the use of UAVs in meteorology – tornadoes or otherwise – is expected to open up new avenues of research.
But even researchers are facing blowback. Scientific American reports:
“Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations restrict the Tempest from freely flying throughout the range of “tornado alley”—the area in the U.S. between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. Currently, the researchers can only work within about 58 small grids of land, each about 1,000 square kilometers in area in northeastern Colorado and portions of Kansas and Nebraska.”
Last year, students at Oklahoma State University designed concept drones that, if built, could replace human storm chasers (sorry, Bill Paxton) by flying very near or even into supercell storms and tornadoes.
Adam Houston, associate professor atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska, told USA Today: “Using manned aircraft is far too dangerous. Using unmanned aircraft is really the panacea.”