from Forbes‘ Greg McNeal
Last month a Seattle woman said that a drone made her nervous because it was flying outside of her window. Early media reports called the device a flying “Peeping Tom.” Soon afterwards, national reports exploded with more than one hundred stories, focused mostly on the news media’s construction of a privacy violation. Now, the photograph of the flight has been provided to Forbes, and it shows that the company flying the drone was merely making a panoramic photograph of the city skyline. The arc of this story — a buzzworthy first report, that later ends up being false— is emblematic of many drone related stories which threaten to jeopardize the nascent industry.
The Seattle non-incident gained national media attention after the woman called her building’s concierge to complain that the drone may have been used to look into her apartment. What received less prominent national media attention was the statement of Joe Vaughn, founder of startup company Skyris Imaging. Vaughn said that he and the pilot of the drone were shooting a panoramic view of the city for a client who was planning to build a 20-story office tower near the woman’s apartment building.
Vaughn, who is a supporter of sensible safety regulations that take account of the various uses of drones, is also a supporter of stricter privacy laws for drones. He says, “If they want to make the punishment for committing a privacy crime with a drone greater, I’m fine with that and I think the commercial drone industry is all for that. But that needs to stay with the privacy laws, not the FAA’s safety rules.”
Vaughn demonstrated he takes concerns about safety and privacy seriously. He contacted the police to report what the company was doing, and said he had talked by phone with the woman who complained. ”I called her and let her know I’m sorry she was startled but we were doing an honest job, we were not peeping toms. There were no images taken at all of this woman.”
The State Of Drone Related Journalism
The Seattle story, like many other drone related stories reveals a pattern in coverage about these new devices. Journalists cover a story, featuring sensational allegations in the lede and introductory paragraphs, only to have the “but it wasn’t true” paragraph buried later in the story.
Take for example this Washington Post story that features the allegations in the lede, and the explanation of the operator in paragraph four, the headline does not feature the counter story. Or consider this LA Times story covering the Seattle “incident.” The story notes the allegation, but fails to note the fact that the owner of the drone quickly came forward and explained what his company does. Similarly this UPI story features the allegations but does not feature any mention of the drone operator’s explanation. Now granted, maybe those stories ran before the response from the drone operator, but news of his response broke pretty quickly, and in this day and age it’s very easy to add an update link to a post. Just consider this USA Today story, which did a pretty good job of setting things up “Drone accused of peeping into woman’s window was photographing aerial views.”
Perhaps the worst recent offender was a local news report by CBS4 in Denver, covering the “news” that a drone crashed in a man’s backyard (near his tree and vegetable garden).
The story is almost comically absurd. The journalist opens with “Why someone would put a GoPro camera on top of a drone to peruse his property is beyond him.” The journalist makes a series of breathless comments about alleged invasions of privacy and the “mystery” behind the drone crash. She tells us that George (the property owner):
- “has video of the drone, but no answers about why it crashed in his yard.”
- “He doesn’t think his vegetable garden is spyworthy.”
- “He’s quick to say he’s not famous, so this isn’t a paparazzi drone.”
- “He assures us his daily activity isn’t anything anyone would be interested in recording.”
Of course, the journalist writing and producing this story knew that the drone was not perusing the man’s property, the pilot merely lost control of the drone. She learned that fact from the local police department — but only reveals it 1 minute and 16 seconds into the story. Moreover, the operator of the drone was such a thoughtful “spy” that he put his name and phone number on the drone. Clearly these were not the actions of an operator who wanted to secretly record someone, but the privacy fear angle was probably too hard for the CBS affiliate to resist.
The Impact Of Drone Journalism Stories
I will be the first to admit that writing about the rapidly evolving drone technology space is difficult to do (I definitely get it wrong sometimes). Stories break that are later revealed to be less sensational than originally reported. For example, last week an NYPD helicopter was involved in what was initially reported as a “near collision” with a drone. My first blog post on the story reported it as a “near collision” as that’s what the wire services reported. However, as new facts came out I changed the title of the post to “In Drone Near Miss With NYPD Helicopter, Defendants Say NYPD To Blame.”
Another story, reporting a “near miss” between a camouflaged drone and a U.S. airliner received substantial national media attention, with CNN featuring a highly inaccurate animated video of the alleged near miss. The only problem, the story was based on a statement made by an FAA official who was unable to provide any details about the alleged incident. A subsequent story walking back some of the details of the initial report did not receive nearly as much attention as the initial report.
Getting first reports wrong is sadly a frequent occurrence in drone coverage. Unfortunately, as the drone industry struggles to take off, such false stories can negatively impact the owners of drones who are associated with false complaints, and it may impact those charged with crimes (as in the NYPD incident). These stories can also impact public policy, playing into the hands of the privacy lobby and anti-drone activists, ultimately resulting in poorly drafted laws.
Vaughn, the operator of the Seattle drone says ”The less we do to embrace drone technology for good, the more we are shipping innovation overseas. Other countries are so far ahead of the United States right now in their acceptance of drone technology that we’re threatening to lose this industry.”
Vaughn’s comments reflect those of Amazon, which recently requested an exemption from FAA regulations so they could test drones on their own private property. Amazon made it clear in their request that if the FAA did not approve their exemption, the company might take their drone related research and development operations outside of the United States.
Many innovators developing drone technology are frustrated by the FAA’s backwards regulations which privilege the use of drones for fun (for example acrobatic flights over a farm), but prohibit the use of drones for business (for example level flights to photograph a farmers crops). Vaughn says, “I can survey 2700 acres of land in a fraction of the time it takes a team of farm hands to survey property.” Others like Chris Anderson of 3DRobotics echo these sentiments noting how drones can allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, thus protecting the environment.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com