A Drone Trend That Needs To End

Citizen journalists using their drones to cover news events should always err on the side of safety.
By Patrick C. Miller | February 02, 2017

Back in the previous century when I lugged around my two trusty 35mm Nikons and a camera bag full of film, lenses and other gear to cover fires, accidents, crimes and disasters for a daily newspaper, I tried to strike a balance between getting the best photo to tell the story and staying out of the way of the law enforcement and emergency services personnel.

I never wanted to create a distraction or be an obstruction for those with a job to do under stressful conditions. In some cases, time was of the essence or lives were at stake. I tried to err on the side of maintaining a respectful distance rather than doing whatever it took to capture the most dramatic photo. I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.

Back then, few people carried around cameras. Even if they did, they lacked the means to share their photos with a large audience in a timely manner. Fast forward to the age of internet-connected smartphones and compact digital imaging technology. Suddenly, citizen journalists are everywhere, sometimes livestreaming news events.

Equipping drones with this technology gives many citizen journalists the ability to cover news in a manner that I couldn’t even dream about as a news photographer 40 years ago. But it also gives them the ability to become a nuisance and a danger that—until recently—didn’t exist.

Last week, the Pacifica, California, police department arrested a 55-year-old drone operator for impeding first responders at the scene of an emergency. According to a police news release, a California Highway Patrol helicopter being used to rescue a person who had apparently fallen off a cliff was forced to suspend operations because a drone at the scene flew too close to the helicopter.

As the police department noted, this wasn’t the first time a drone had interfered with emergency operations in the area. It stressed that “FAA regulations prohibit any person from operating an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

Some argue that the 1st Amendment rights of citizen journalists to gather news using drones should not be infringed upon by law enforcement. Others question whether law enforcement is working with the FAA to cover up activities it doesn’t want the public to see.

As a working journalist, I am sympathetic to these positions. However, there is a point at which the right of free speech must be balanced against the need to protect and preserve life and property. As drones become more prevalent, this issue is something that will undoubtedly make its way through the courts. Eventually, a legal precedent will be set.

In the meantime, forcing the issue by pushing the limits of safety and common sense could result in knee-jerk laws or regulation that’s bad for the drone hobbyist community and the UAS industry alike. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your drone as a citizen journalist, but it does mean that erring on the side of safety is always a good idea.