15 Experts Talk About Opportunities and Challenges in Drone Journalism

What are the top 3 opportunities and challenges in the use of drones for journalism? Which area has the most potential for drone journalism? I asked 15 experts in drone journalism to share their views on these questions.

Drones are set to become a mainstream tool in journalism.

In a few short years, drones have evolved from paparazzi’s gadgets to amazingly useful tools helping journalists, news organizations, and private citizens to capture and share breaking news, to offer unique visual perspectives, and to explore new reporting frontiers beyond the visuals, in particular through data collection and integration with emerging technologies.

While in many aspects the use of drones in journalism is still a novelty, and while there are key legal, regulatory and ethics concerns still to address and resolve, this is a field showing huge potential.

To better understand the state of drones in journalism, I asked 2 simple questions to 15 experts who work in this space:

  1. “What are the top 3 opportunities and challenges in the use of drones for journalism?”
  2. “Which use shows the most potential for drones in journalism: breaking and daily news, investigative reporting, conflict and disaster reporting, photojournalism, etc…?

If you are in a hurry, these are the opportunities and challenges most mentioned by the experts in the interviews:

Top 5 Opportunities in the use of drones for journalism

#1 Extended options for storytelling – 12 mentions
#2 Cost effectiveness/affordability – 11 mentions
#3 Data gathering – 6 mentions
#4 Integration with emerging innovative technologies – 5 mentions
#5 Human life saving/safety for journalists & operators – 4 mentions

(for details on what each category includes, read my recap)

Top 5 Challenges in the use of drones for journalism

#1 Legal/Regulatory framework – 12 mentions
#2 Operational safety risks & hazards – 8 mentions
#3 Negative public perception – 6 mentions
#4 Privacy violation risks – 5 mentions
#5 Quality of training of operators on aerial visual grammar – 3 mentions

Read on to discover each expert’s opinion!

You can either skip to your favorite expert using these quick links or grab a coffee, get comfortable and commence scrolling!

Enjoy reading!


I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all the hardworking journalists, researchers, and professors featured in this roundup post, for taking the time to express their valuable opinion and letting Skytango™ publish their content.

This roundup, I believe, is a very stimulating reading if you are interested in drones in journalism and wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts and the willingness of all the below experts to share their knowledge and expertise.

Responses listed in the order they were received in:

Matthew Schroyer (Professional Society of Drone Journalists, U.S.)

Matthew Schroyer Professional Society of Drone Journalists

Matthew Schroyer is an award-winning journalist, the founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, and Technologist at Oklahoma City Community College in Oklahoma, U.S. He also runs Mental Munition, a consultancy which offers a variety of services around drones, data, and IoT. He worked as drone program lead for a National Science Foundation grant, where he taught high school students to engineer and deploy small UAS.

follow: @MattSchroyer

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

One of the greatest opportunities in drone journalism is that it open-sources aerial photography and disaster coverage to small newsrooms.

There’s been great progress in simplifying photogrammetry and low-cost multispectral imaging. So another great opportunity is journalists using drones to generate 3D models of scenes and environments, creating powerful storytelling moments through virtual reality.

Additionally, you have opportunities for multispectral imagery and photogrammetry to allow for data-driven reports.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

The number one challenge, hands down, is going to be navigating the regulatory framework. For example, in the US, states and municipalities have been making laws on drones that are not consistent with how airspace has been managed at the national level.

Two other big challenges are safety and public perception.

The area with the most potential:

Certainly breaking and daily news could all benefit from drones. It’s logical to look at events that already are covered by news helicopters, and transition to lower-cost UAS where possible.

But as I alluded to earlier, there is a subtle but powerful movement happening that is pulling emergent technologies into journalism to create entirely new ways to deliver stories and information.

It’s happening through consumer-ready VR, it’s happening through data science, and it’s happening through open-source hardware and internet of things.

It’s important to look at the drone holistically and see it as a complement to all these other tools.


Jeff Ducharme (College of the North Atlantic, Canada)

Jeff Ducharme College of North Atlantic Journalism Program

Jeff Ducharme, award-winning Canadian photographer, reporter, and editor has worked for The Ottawa Sun and Reuters. Jeff is now an instructor with the College of the North Atlantic (CNA)’s Journalism Program in Newfoundland, Canada. CNA Journalism was the first post-secondary school in Canada to introduce drone journalism into its curriculum in 2013 and to offer an entire elective course in Drone Journalism in 2015.

follow: @hirider750

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

Drone journalism is more of a tool, than a discipline onto itself. While pilot skills are required, it is simply another way to tell the story or investigate a claim.

Drone journalism’s biggest contribution to media outlets is that it levels the playing the field. Previous to this technology, only large media outlets could afford to rent a helicopter (approximately $1,000 Cdn an hour) to get aerial images or video. With the introduction of drones, small operations can capture the same images and conduct the same investigations using a platform which is accessible and pays for itself almost immediately.

As a storytelling tool, it can take readers to a place they have never been before or allow them to see things in a new light and give issues or stories an epic perspective such as this Chernobyl footage:

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl from Danny Cooke on Vimeo.

or this footage of Auschwitz as the drone mimics the view of the train ride into the camp:

In both cases, the images are often far more striking and emotive than ground-level images.

The top three opportunities for drone journalism revolve around adding to the content rather than any specific opportunity.

Make stories epic, make them different, take viewers to places they have never gone before and allow them to see their world and the issues in a different and challenging way.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

Drone journalism will always be challenged by government regulations, public opinion and the foolish actions of a minority. As far as government regulations go, we can only be vigilant and hope these overseers will be reasonable and not stifle an industry with cumbersome and unnecessary regulations.

The media needs to band together and lobby for a workable regulatory regime. But the media by its very nature doesn’t tend to work towards a common goal preferring exclusivity above all else. If we are to move this forward, the media must change the way it does things and work together for the benefit of an industry.

Public opinion is the technology’s greatest challenge. Regardless of regulations or assurances, the public remains paranoid about what the technology will be used for. Many see it as an invasion of privacy and think drone journalists will be flying through their communities looking for stories, and ready to swoop down from on high when they are found.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Further complicating this is that the public cannot, or are unwilling to, differentiate between professional operators and recreational, or even worse, out-of-the-box users.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort dealing with issues caused by out-of-the-box users who are only interested in getting likes on You Tube. Such users will put themselves and others in danger in a bid to see their video go viral. They are the largest issue and the greatest danger, but the public thinks we are all one in the same.

This being the case, our biggest challenge is to delineate between the skill levels and agendas and somehow assuage the public’s paranoia.

Matthew Schroyer did this with the creation of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists and I tried to get the message out to professionals and journalism schools by creating a Drone Journalism Code of Conduct.

Each is a step forward, but there is much more to do and we all have to be invested in it.

The area with the most potential:

When I first began following developments in drone journalism, I was excited at the potential the technology had for spot news (fires, accidents, standoffs and crime scenes), but regulators seem steadfast in their opposition to drones being used by professional drone journalists in urban environments.

Currently, the only possibility for such coverage is the use of tethered drones such as the Fotokite. And whether the regulators would try to ground that technology in urban settings remains unclear.

Drone technology is only limited by imagination and innovation, but because of exemption rules or the requirement to file an SFOC (Transport Canada), drones are more suited to longer term, big picture stories.

In other words, stories that can be rolled out with enough of a timeline that applying for a federal permit has no negative impact on the story.

The technology has tremendous value for still and video users, but the regulations and the operator will govern the end usage and potential.


Andrew Clark (University of Texas at Arlington, U.S.)

Andrew Clark - University of Texas at ArlingtonAssociate Professor at University of Texas, Arlington. Andrew’s primary area of research is international broadcasting. He has published in journals such as The Journal of Radio Studies, Journal of Middle East Media, International Communication Gazette, Global Media Journal, American Journalism. Andrew published and co-authored several papers on drone journalism, such as New Perspective From The Sky – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Journalism.

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

  1. Greater depth and perspective in storytelling
  1. Timely coverage of events
  1. Cost effective coverage of events

I think that the top opportunity for drones in journalism is to provide more depth to stories by taking the viewer to places and to show them detail they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to.

I think of a video of the typhoon in the Philippines and seeing drone video from a British photojournalist. There was one sequence where the drone was flown inside an abandoned ruined building bringing a compelling picture of the devastation. It was also flown over and around the devastated areas bringing the tragedy home in a way that was never before possible.

That video made the story, but it was timely and cost-effective, and possibly contributed to more immediate support for the crisis.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

  1. Safety
  1. Privacy
  1. Newsworthiness

The challenges facing journalists involve telling that story in such a way that you still respect the privacy and safety of individuals and in ensuring that you’re using the technology for a news-worthy purpose.

It is a matter of ethics and the law. Just because you can fly somewhere legally, doesn’t mean that ethically it is the right thing to do, the safe thing to do, and it is being done for a newsworthy purpose.

Journalists will have to be much more in tune with their own ethical compass, and that of their organization.

The area with the most potential:

For me, I see the use with the most potential for drones in journalism is coverage of natural or man-made disasters where the perspective provided by the drone illustrates the extent and gravity of the situation.

However, there are plenty of daily news stories that would benefit from drone use, and certainly specialized reporting areas such as nature or travel journalism.

The reality is that due to various regulations and concerns it will be harder to use drones for everyday stories, so the majority of use may be for more specialized stories that require a little more planning.


Ben Kreimer (BuzzFeed/Drone Journalism Lab, U.S.)

Ben Kreimer - Drone Journalism LabBen Kreimer is a journalism technologist and the beta fellow for BuzzFeed’s Open Lab Fellowship. He’s also an adviser with the Drone Journalism Lab and Kenya-based African SkyCAM. Ben explores the use of drones and open-source hardware sensor platforms as new tools for gathering data and telling stories. He has presented on his drone and sensor journalism work at universities, Hacks/Hackers meetings and conferences all around the world.

follow: @benkreimer

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

  1. Telling old stories, stories that have been told before, from a new perspective

For example, I’ve done a lot of drone safari work around Africa. Back in 2014, I was working with a conservancy in the Amboseli region of Kenya and I showed a safari guide footage I shot of me flying a Phantom 2 around a giraffe’s head.

He saw the video, laughed at how unusual the perspective was, and said to me, “I’ve been in the safari business for over 20 years and have seen a lot of photographs and videos of giraffes, but I’ve never seen a giraffe like that before. It felt like seeing a giraffe for the first time.”

Here’s the video clip: Aerial Tour of the Amboseli Ecosystem:

  1. Spatial storytelling

Multirotor drones are unmatched in their ability to maneuver through space and hover in place. Gravity is turned off when you’re flying a drone. Because of this, you can explore spaces in new and interesting ways.

The most interesting visuals from a drone come from about 5 feet up to 100 feet. Those are altitudes that helicopters and airplanes don’t normally operate at. Or if they do, it has to be a very unique circumstance, and still it would be very dangerous!

When people think of aerial shots they think of visuals captured by a helicopter or plane. Drones can capture those visuals too, but they can also fly through doors, in and out of buildings etc. Drones excel at documenting spaces, structures and landscapes.

Images from drones can also create 3D reconstructions of real environments and structures. These 3D reconstructions are a completely new way of bringing media consumers into real spaces, albeit virtually. Two-dimensional video and images fall short of this.

These virtual environments, which can be experienced in the browser, and mobile devices and VR headsets (they are basically 3D video game environments), allow media consumers to explore the space, and the story on their own, like in a video game, rather than watching produced video or photographs that only show what the camera operator and producer want you to see.

Here’s a 3D environment, a reconstruction of the Dandora landfill in Nairobi. There’s also an aerial video to show how different the 3D reconstruction is from the drone captured video.

Dandora Dumpsite in Nairobi, Kenya
by African skyCAM
on Sketchfab

And here’s an ancient Roman temple excavation in Turkey.

Third Century Roman Temple from Southern Turkey
by Ben Kreimer
on Sketchfab

And here’s a “rough draft” first person view environment of the same temple, which lets you walk (arrow keys and space bar) around the environment.

Of course, you can also stick a 360 camera rig on the drone, and have a floating camera platform.

  1. Autonomous work

Drones of today are basically flying computers. They can take off, land and hover in place using only their onboard sensors. And now we’re starting to see more autonomous features like collision avoidance.

But still, most of these autonomous features are designed to assist the operator. Soon the operator will be removed from the equation, which will be great because operators cause most problems and crashes!

These drones of the future will have even more computing power and will be capable of autonomous operations that are much more complex than just flying around and taking photos and videos, which is analogous to using a laptop for word processing.

Computers make it easy to write text, and for the foreseeable future people will continue typing on computers, but computers can do so much more than just word processing!

It will be the same with drones.

So, drones will start carrying more sensors capable of gathering data about the world, traveling longer distances, and accessing more hard to reach places than they are capable of today.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

  1. Regulations

This is by far the biggest challenge. Regulations stifle innovation.

I can’t even fly a drone for work in the US because I don’t have a pilot’s license.

Flying a Cessna does not equate to flying a drone that I sit in the palm of my hand.

I can go fly my DJI Phantom for fun in a park, but the moment I’m flying my DJI Phantom in the same park for work I’m instantly running afoul of the regulations.

So to date, all the published work I’ve done has been overseas in countries with more relaxed regulations.

A commercial drone operator with any sense is not going to do something dangerous because their business is at stake, yet we aren’t supposed to operate at all. But hobbyists, including myself on weekends, can fly with relative freedom.

Regulations will improve, but it’s still a stifling environment here in the US. And of course, there are people ignoring the rules and operating without a 333.

  1. Safety issues with equipment

This is improving by leaps and bounds every year as drones become more autonomous. Still there is room for improvement. It’s only a matter of time before drones will be virtually crash proof.

  1. It’s less a challenge and more of an obstacle but time and financial costs are worth considering

A well stocked Phantom 3 field kit can be had for well under $2000. Still, that might be more than a media organization can afford.

And even if they can afford it is there someone who will take the time, perhaps in addition to their normal workload, to become proficient at operating the drone?

Time (learning to fly the drone) and financial resources can get in the way of using it for storytelling.

And if you want to get more out of your drone than simple aerial video and photographs you’ll need someone who can put the time into, say making 3D environments.

Because of these obstacles I market myself as a journalism technologist, or, the individual with all the technical knowledge and experience who works alongside the reporter in the field so they can focus on the story while I focus on making sure the tools work for telling the story.

The area with the most potential:

All of these uses are high potential but in different ways.

-Breaking and daily news will see the drone as a helicopter replacement. Protest? Traffic jam? Rally? Use a drone! It’s cheaper, safer a faster to deploy than a helicopter. That said, you’re really limited to the fast turn around content, videos and photos when using a drone for breaking and daily news.

-Investigative reporting: Given the looser time constraints with such reporting there are more opportunities for creative drone applications. On the one hand, you can shoot video and photographs, and in places where it would otherwise be impossible to get a helicopter or plane even if you had the money. Thinking of some of the places I’ve worked around Africa, there would have been no way to get a manned aircraft even if you had the money.

-Conflict and disaster reporting pull from the above two situations. In a disaster zone, it might be impossible to hire a manned aircraft. The helipad or airstrip may have been destroyed.  In some countries, the government might keep journalists from flying on their aircraft, in which case again a drone is the only way to get the aerial perspective. The images captured by a drone can also assist with search and rescue operations, a practice that is becoming more common.


John Mills (University of Central Lancashire, U.K.)


John Mills moved into academia from online journalism and content creation. After teaching multimedia journalism techniques and theory at UCLan, he is now member of UCLan’s Media Innovation Studio (research lab established by UCLan’s School of Journalism and Media) and Civic Drone Centre. John’s research activity spans drone journalism, the Internet of Things, augmented paper, mobile journalism, wearables and innovation theory.

follow: @_johnmills

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

1. Drone Data

For me, this is the top opportunity. I think there’s some interesting potential around sensor and image data that could offer another key element to the practice of drone journalism.

Equipping UAVs with environmental, pollution or other sensors, with the aim of gathering data sets for either news verification or to reveal new stories, could be a rich opportunity in years to come.

Equally, bolting image recognition and crowd counting software onto UAVs could provide data through which ‘official figures’ can be scrutinized.

Drone data journalism could be an exciting area in the coming years. Drones used within engineering or humanitarian scenarios are beginning to explore this space, and journalism could follow suit.

2. Unique affordances of aerial footage

This is such an obvious one but is worth remembering. Aerial footage from natural disasters, conflict zones, public demonstrations or mass sporting events can be a genuinely powerful and unique way to convey a story.

It creates a unique dynamic for storytellers. Literally providing a different perspective. Journalists should remember the power of such footage, and deploy it to maximum editorial advantage rather than let it become ‘run of the mill’.

3. Dissemination to local newsrooms

Although there is a focus on high-end story treatments, i.e. VR and 360 footage, I like the concept of a grass roots adoption.

Thanks to the relatively affordable pricing of professional level drones, regional and local news rooms can take advantage of a unique storytelling device.

This is exiting both for them and their audiences.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

  1. Regulations and permissions

A distinct barrier to entry are the legal requirements in place around UAV use. Equipping newsrooms with the knowledge and the skills to operate within legal and regulatory frameworks is a key challenge, and editorial operations need to equip staff with the skills or find freelance practitioners who could do this for them.

There’s also reason to lobby regulators for journalism-specific exemptions, particularly when carried out in the public interest.

2. Public perception and safety

As soon as a journalism drone causes an accident, or injures someone, we will see a public reaction. Editorial operations need to place safety as a top priority. Otherwise, drones could be seen as a reckless and unnecessary tool by the public.

3. Privacy

Like safety, this challenge is one that editorial operations should be aware of.

If drones are used as an airborne paparazzi, their use for public interest journalism could be placed under threat due to backlash from both the public and potentially regulatory bodies. Quality journalism and storytelling will be key in seeing drone journalism reach its full potential.

The area with the most potential:

I think there’s potential across all these areas.

And, considering the range of editorial uses, I think the key is not which kind of reporting UAVs can be used for, but more the specific stories themselves.

Journalists and editors need to think about what unique shots or data a drone can offer on a story-by-story basis – understanding both the technical and cinematic potential will reveal unique editorial treatments that add value for audiences.


Karl Penhaul (Freelance Journalist, Spain)

Karl Penhaul

Karl Penhaul is an international journalist covering Latin America, Middle East and Europe, with more than 25 years experience in print and TV. Karl worked for Reuters, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, Univision and Al Jazeera and is currently freelance based out of Spain. While working for CNN Karl used drones in several seminal occasions to report on news and dramatic events such as Tacloban’s devastation by Typhoon Haiyan.

follow: @karlpenhaul

Top 3 challenges and opportunities for drones in journalism:

I think a primary challenge has already proved to be the regulatory framework. It has already stifled the speed of development of drone journalism in certain media organizations. Drone operators and cameramen, along with corporate media lawyers, are getting buried under piles of paperwork on rules and regulations.

Some media corporations and self-styled serious drone operators see this regulatory framework as necessary and responsible. It does, however, limit the possibility and speed of getting footage even over public spaces.

As journalists, one ends up dependent on the decision of authorities/officials and government bodies. Such authorities seem highly unlikely to grant access in situations where they or their actions may be at fault or put them under media scrutiny.

Corporate media and their legal departments seem unlikely to want to break these regulations even in an emergency both for the legal fallout but also perhaps because of negative implications for future access to government/official sources.

Another challenge is of course, one of unwelcome or unwarranted surveillance by drones, even those that belong to news organizations making a broad argument that their drone coverage serves a public good.

A third challenge I believe is a genuinely journalistic challenge. When does drone footage genuinely help our reporting? Most drone footage I see in news reports or actuality shows strikes me as “insert drone footage here because we can”. It has fast become the obligatory and often gratuitous drone shot, pretty much like the gratuitous “time lapse”.

A drone shot clearly offers the possibility to a journalist of being able to take the story forward, demonstrate a new angle or offer relevant perspective and context. I see the technical skill of news drone operators developing very fast (as is the technology going into the drones) but I see their editorial skills and experience lagging far behind when it comes to whether or not a drone shot is journalistically relevant.

I also frequently see drone operators’ visual skills lacking. Many simply put the drone into the air at an indeterminate height. Few seem to consider the optimum height and ground-to-air movement necessary to show the relevant visual information and make the relevant editorial point. That “visual grammar” are the same kind of considerations that apply to a traditional camera operator when they opt for a close, medium or wide shot. But many drone operators either don’t have the experience or believe those considerations don’t affect them.

In an ideal world and regulations and technology permitting, I think drones may offer increasing opportunities for live broadcasts.

I have been excited about a small handful of drone operators who appear to be applying basic concepts of visual grammar to their flying and filming and are capable of sequencing a news report with drone footage taken at different heights and different perspectives. The majority of drone footage though, to me personally, seems gratuitous trying to grab viewers attracted to technology not the news.

The area with the most potential:

I see tremendous potential for drones in disaster reporting. Many times we’ve been in locations where debris, rubble, landslides make transit by road impossible and slow on foot. Sending up a drone across the path of the disaster offers the possibility of getting an early perspective on the scale of disaster particularly in localized areas where one doesn’t have the chance to fly in on relief helicopters etc.

I also find a drone perspective interesting when the craft can retrace its flight path several months later to check on the pace of recovery.

Breaking news certainly in highly regulated skies will continue to be a challenge for news drones and maybe even get worse because of the need for permits. And already I find the amount of drone footage seeping into daily news coverage very gimmicky. It may look flashy and some may believe it adds “production value”. On many occasions I fail to see how it adds any real journalistic value.

I would definitely love to see news drones used in a conflict scenario. Of course, drones have been used to document the extent of destruction/aftermath of a conflict but I see that as the same application as disaster coverage.

I would love to see a drone flying over an active battlefield. However, if the footage is being broadcast live or used as “quickturn” footage then, of course, journalists and editors would have to use editorial and ethical judgement to make sure live footage was not giving away intelligence information useful to either side. The practical issue of course, would be how to stop the drone getting targeted by either side and shot down.

What drones cannot replace (right now at least) is genuine boots-on-the ground journalism and talking to the people making the news including victims and survivors etc.

I think we’ve already crossed the line in many instances and in many broadcast and digital media corporations of making journalism subservient to the technology. It’s a trend I believe that began around the time of the DNG (digital news gathering revolution) with new smaller cameras, regional BGANs etc being showcased during the 2003 Iraq war and seems to have become worse with the growing emphasis on digital (mobile and internet platforms).


Jorge Cruz Silva (Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, Ecuador)

Jorge Cruz Silva

Jorge Cruz Silva is Assistant Professor at the School of Communication at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, and an Ecuadorian journalist with experience in newspaper journalism and radio broadcasting. Jorge’s main areas of research are digital culture and digital media. He is author of the MSc. Dissertation at the University of Edinburgh “Is Ecuador prepared to deploy Drone Journalism?“.

follow: @eljacso

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

The main opportunities for drones in journalism endeavors can be defined as follows:

1. Technical improvements

As companies keep producing new models of drones, these new versions possess enhanced features as the hold position or the possibility of navigating through trees and other obstacles due to an advanced sensing system.

2. Pricing/Popularity

As with any technology, the affordability is a key aspect to ensure the popularity of any device; while prices of advanced drones are dropping, more newsrooms -regardless of size or scope- can acquire and start to play with them.

3. Diversity of usage

In journalism, a reporter is asked to be versatile; that could also be applied to his/her tools for the coverage. Drones are being used to report breaking news, to produce documentaries or to cover sports events.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

On the other hand, 3 top challenges that drone journalism may face:

1. Safety

Drones can be considered hazardous devices when they cannot be properly controlled. In November 2015, a drone fell near the Uruguay goalkeeper in a match for the World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador.

2. Legal constraints

This aspect may be defined by the legislative actuality of each country. While in some places there is no legislation regarding drones, in other countries like the U.S., commercial use of these devices is being promoted. This diversity of views can be challenging if a journalist wants to operate a drone overseas.

3. The efficiency of battery life

This is a challenge that eventually should be perfected; the most popular versions of drones can only operate for approx 15 minutes; this aspect directly affects the coverage, which normally lasts longer.

The area with the most potential:

As part of the research carried out for my MSc. dissertation, I interviewed Ecuadorian photographers and reporters, and they acknowledged that a capital use for drones in journalism is the coverage of (1) mass gatherings and (2) natural disasters.

On Saturday 16th of May 2016, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador’s Pacific coast. This terrible event has confirmed those views.

The difficulties regarding access to the most affected areas were a humanitarian constraint and, on the other hand, also presented difficulties in obtaining shots that could reflect the magnitude of the disaster.

TV stations – local and international (ABC or BBC for example) – have complemented their news information with aerial views obtained with these drones:

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

The small size of these vehicles allows mobility, and their use, despite the difficult and precarious conditions in the area, is powerful. Other drones have been used to detect traces of people trapped in the rubble of fallen buildings, some others will help to map the affected area.

In my research, experienced photographers noted that one key aspect of aerial footage is the possibility of capturing images that can display the details of a specific place and contextualize it.

The aforementioned conflict and disaster reporting can be seen as an important potential use for these unmanned aerial vehicles.


Julian March (julianmarch.co, U.S.)

Julian March

Julian March is an award-winning digital publisher, a journalist with decades of television news experience, and a consultant specialized in TV & digital media production and in the intersection of broadcast news and digital. He is currently consulting for EuroNews. Julian worked for ITN, Sky, ITV, and NBC News in editorial and executive management roles.

follow: @JulianMarch

Journalism is all about perspectives.

It’s important to get multiple perspectives on a story, and sometimes an overview is one of the most useful.

As picture people / video buffs / TV guys (trying to cover all bases) we’ve all drooled over drone shots. The elevation, alongside the avionics of the UAVs and gyro stabilization of the camera mounts, give the shots an amazing magic, which make them difficult to click/turn off.

Aerials are obviously the most natural applications for drones. I see three main categories here, and I wanted to share with you some stand-out drone video which illustrates for me the best examples:

Disasters: Remember the incredible footage from Nepal’s awful earthquake last year. Cross-sections through multiple stories, among the minarets of  isolated buildings strangely spared by the otherwise near-total destruction.

Scale: The biggest eye-opener for me about moving to America from the UK is the sheer scale. Drones are great at showing scale. And this clip smashes home the story of North Carolina’s toxic lakes from pig farming:

And, forgive the glib change of gear (I find it happens a lot in newsroom discussions), third in the aerial category is eye-candy:  check out these pictures of Niagara Falls frozen over in 2015:

As we saw in the pig farming story, drones are also great for getting to places too dangerous for humans to go. Here’s video of the site of last year’s chemical explosion in Tianjin. This was filmed at a time when journalists were restricted from the site by a large exclusion zone.

We should remember that drones don’t have to fly sky high all the time. What’s great about this video from Russiaworks.ru is that they flew nearly at street level, so you get a different perspective altogether – you can imagine what it feels like having Homs as your home town.

Don’t forget drones come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest one I have owned fitted inside my hand (forgive me, I’m in France at the moment).

While I, and my kids, love to fly drones, it’s actually getting a bit old hat already. I can’t wait for my Lilycamera – should be any day now. These guys are pioneering automated flying! By following a tracking device which stays with the owner, you preset several moves or flight plans so the drone can follow, lead or track you, or it can shoot up for an aerial selfie:

While I was at NBC, we experimented with a live video venture called stringwire.com, and before we got completely steamrollered by Meerkat (who got steamrollered by Periscope), we were the only way you could stream live from the DJI Phantom 3. And we all know how important live video is in journalism.

So, if you pull all of that together, here’s my prediction for drone journalism:

I think you’ll see a time when it’s normal for a correspondent to have her own drone. She’ll take it on every story, and she’ll use it to record pieces to camera (standing or walking), and interviews.

It’s just another step in the democratization of story-telling. So there you go, that’s my perspective – I’d love to hear yours. Get in touch!  julianmarch on Twitter or Linkedin, or julianmarch.co.


Sally French (TheDroneGirl.com, U.S.)

Sally French

Sally French is the blogger behind TheDroneGirl.com, and a journalist published in major news outlets including BBC, Forbes, The Economist, CNN, NBC, NPR. She attended the Missouri School of Journalism’s drone journalism program in its inaugural year, and has been among the first journalists to focus on reporting on drones. She regularly speaks at conferences and to media about drones. Included in Fortune Magazine’s Most Influential Women in Drones.

follow: @TheDroneGirl

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

The biggest opportunity is cost savings.

It’s not uncommon to see a news helicopter photographing something like a fire or highway traffic from the air, but that can cost thousands of dollars per hour. A drone can get that same shot for a one-time fee of about a thousand dollars. Newsrooms are already tight on money, so this could be a huge money-saver.

With that cost savings comes the ability to cover stories we wouldn’t cover otherwise because it would just be too difficult.

In the future, we’ll see more parades, protests, natural disasters, etc. all documented via drone.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

The biggest challenges for journalism are no different than any other commercial drone use case.

Safety is of upmost importance, and while the technology has improved so much even in the past two years to make these safe to fly, I still am not 100% confident a drone could safely fly over a protest scene 100% of the time.

There is also the regulation aspect, which (hopefully) will be resolved this year. The 333 exemption process has been a huge hindrance to a lot of people who don’t have a pilot’s license.

The area with the most potential:

Right now the majority of drone journalism we’re seeing is of unpopulated areas due to safety concerns.

There have been cool videos of drones covering flood zones, showing bridges over water or depicting farmland.

They are largely environmental focused stories, which is great – but in the future, we’ll see more protests and events involving people being covered.


Stijn Postema (Freelance Journalist, Netherlands)

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a Dutch freelance journalist. For over 15 years Stijn worked as a freelance journalist for magazines and newspapers in the Netherlands. He is a Journalism lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, and at the University of Applied Sciences CHE. Stijn is the author of “News Drones: An Auxiliary Perspective“, and writes on Dutch News Design articles on drones and journalism such as “9 Drone Video Reporting Applications” or this interview to Matt Waite.

follow: @twitjournalist

I think the drone is primarily an extra in journalism.

As an ‘eye witness’ tool, you have an extra pair of eyes, providing a journalist with more insight. This can be either useful as data to be published or be useful for knowing where a conflict or natural disaster reporter can go, or where he should stay away from.

It makes a reporter less dependent on authorities, telling him where it’s safe to go.

It’s also very useful in situations where there are many people involved, as it’s easier to estimate a crowd from above or find out where things are getting rough.

Of course, drones can partly replace documentary equipment such as cranes, making it easier, cheaper, and thus usable for a large group of documentary makers with a low budget.

In breaking news there is a chance that in the future there will be someone with a drone around, so more of our news will be reported including the aerial perspective.

But the most interesting use of drones in journalism to me, is in the area of investigative reporting, where a drone is equipped with sensors to measure, for example air pollution or radiation. When a drone can infiltrate places otherwise impossible to get access to,  it becomes an extension of the journalist as an eye witness. And, for journalistic cinematographers it’s a useful auxiliary tool for reporting.


Ron Futrell (AviSight, U.S.)

Ron Futrell

Las Vegas based journalist, Ron Futrell has worked for three decades as sports director and news anchor for various network TV affiliates in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, and more recently as Media Manager of ArrowData, a drone startup. He is currently VP Sales and Marketing at AviSight, a leading drone and manned aerospace services provider, and Professor of Sports Broadcasting at University of Nevada Las Vegas – UNLV.

follow: @RonFutrell

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

1)      Creating dynamic video that cannot be obtained any other way

2)      Showing technology to viewers that can likely attract tech-savvy younger viewers

3)      Save money by reducing costs that would go towards much more expensive aircraft.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

1)      Overcoming prohibitive FAA and local regulations that curtail use of drones by reputable operators.

2)      Overcoming negative public perception of drones that ironically is perpetuated by the media outlets that will most benefit from their use.

3)      Insuring media outlets have properly trained operators who will approach the industry as serious aviators.

The area with the most potential:

We are now using drones effectively for feature news, construction updates and general newsgathering.

AeroJournalism is being used with TV stations that have helicopters and stations that do not. AviSight has flown for KGO in San Francisco covering the drought conditions at Camanche Reservoir in nearby Stockton, California and we showed the drought conditions through b-roll and through live transmission.

AviSight has also flown construction projects for KLAS in Las Vegas giving them aerial shots that they could not have gotten without paying much more expensive helicopter services. We have flown boat wreckage sites in San Diego and bridge construction sites in Louisville. Helicopters could not have gotten the shots that we obtained and would not have been as economical.

Recently we coordinated with the FAA to fly the Thunder Over Louisville air show for WDRB TV. This was a remarkable success. This was the first time the FAA had allowed a drone operator to fly an active air show for purposes of AeroJournalism. We transmitted live video for the broadcast and showed the FAA that we could coordinate with their Air Boss for safe flights. We conducted dozens of flights over the 6 broadcast hours of the air show:

It will take time and a relaxing of regulations for drones to be used for breaking news. When that time comes we will see AeroJournalists who are equipped with the hardware and the licensing to fly safely and responsibly over breaking news.

I would make the argument that it could be safer to keep news crews at a greater distance from the scene while they can still provide viewers with the best video possible.

It has been a long process to get to this point. After making the financial investment and training our crews, we had to get FAA approval and proper insurance and then we had to convince news organizations to use this technology.

I believe the time will come, and it will come soon, when AeroJournalists will be working for TV stations throughout the country. Drones will be the great equalizer between markets. Stations in New York and LA will be using drones, along with stations in Yakima, Washington and Ft. Myers, Florida.


Astrid Gynnild (University of Bergen, Norway)

Astrid Gynnild

Astrid Gynnild is Professor for Journalism and Media Studies and Head of the Journalism Program at the University of Bergen. She is Chair of the Norwegian Board of Applied Media Research and author of “The Robot Eye Witness” and other papers on digital journalism. Her current research project ViSmedia focuses on visual surveillance technologies in the news media, and concerns drones, visual surveillance, video journalism and data journalism.

follow: @astridgynnild

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

Drones and drone filming are a game changer in journalism.

With drones, journalists can provide aerial reporting from events and places that would otherwise be visually inaccessible. Drone filming helps document what is really going on for instance, in war zones, during fires and floods and during demonstrations, to mention a few news events.

In addition to extended options for visual storytelling, drones provide journalists and photographers with new opportunities for technological experimenting. I am convinced that such journalism innovation, which is a learning-by-doing approach, in the next round will help pave the way for an extended focus on innovation as a news beat as well as innovation in general.

The third top opportunity for drones in journalism is extended visual surveillance of people, events and places while still committing to journalism’s codes of conduct.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

The 3 top challenges of drones in journalism, by contrast, concern ethics, legislation and security issues.

How might news professionals demonstrate responsible use of drone technologies in journalism? Droning for journalistic purposes is stretched between new options for sensational storytelling and respecting regulative restrictions.

Even though aviation regulations are international, rules and norms for drone piloting vary from country to country. In particular, celebrity drone photographers challenge people’s right to privacy.

Yet another ethical aspect of the increasing use of drone technologies is of course, the growing amount of electronic waste in nature.

We are still at an early stage of drone innovation, and I am certain that dangers and security issues will be more a focus in the future. Such issues concern people and animals as well nature’s sustainability.

I clearly see a need for providing relevant education in journalistic drone piloting.

In sum, a major challenge is how to ensure a responsible research and innovation approach to drones in journalism, and how to get such knowledge and skills implemented in daily practice.

The area with the most potential:

I believe that drones are useful in most ways of doing journalism.

Drone images, videos and live-streaming add a dimension to visual journalism.

In particular, drone technologies are helpful in conflict and disaster reporting, in which the biggest problem is often to get to document what is really going on.

Many news reporters have risked their lives to get the best shots during really dangerous circumstances. With skilled piloting of lightweight drones, journalists might tell stories of truth that otherwise would not get a voice.

I am worried that drone piloting might be outsourced from the newsrooms even before it has been explored, though.


Mickey Osterreicher (National Press Photographers’ Association, U.S.)

Mickey Osterreicher

Mickey Osterreicher is the General Counsel for the National Press Photographers’ Association. He is experienced in contract, media, copyright and First Amendment Law. He is also an award-winning photojournalist with 40 years of experience with material appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, ABC, etc. Mickey has been a lecturer in Photojournalism at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an adjunct law professor in media and the law at the SUNY Buffalo Law School.

follow: @nppalawyer

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

I view the top opportunities for use of drones for newsgathering as another tool. Just as visual journalists may decide to use a wide angle or telephoto lens to better tell the story, so too can they use a drone to provide an aerial view with a different perspective.

It is very common for a governor or president to take to the air to view the devastation after a natural disaster. That is because one cannot understand the widespread aftermath of a flood, fire, earthquake or hurricane without the view from above. The same is true for visual journalism.

It is also safer and more cost effective for news organizations as well as individual journalists to use a drone launched from near the scene of a news story that they are already covering on the ground, than to fly hundreds of miles by plane or helicopter to get the same images.

Additionally drones can be used at an altitude just above ground level or very close to the subjects, where flying a helicopter would not only be aeronautically impossible but extremely dangerous to the crew as well as the subject of the story – see National Geographic coverage of man scaling a frozen Niagara Falls:

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

The greatest challenges to drone use in newsgathering come from those who choose to fly unsafely.

Some examples are flying too fast or too close to people, operating beyond line of sight or operating without coordinating with aerial fire-fighting efforts.

Another concern is that some overly aggressive operators will actually use drones in a manner that invades people’s privacy or will fly too close to commercial aircraft (thus giving the entire media a bad name).

The area with the most potential:

I think at the outset, disaster reporting will provide the greatest opportunity for drones to live up to their potential for use in newsgathering for the reasons mentioned above and because the nature of the coverage may not necessarily be flying over people or property (that has not already been destroyed).

The next possible use could be for investigative reporting where aerial views of toxic runoff (as one example) could be economically and safely captured by drones.

Daily use, especially in feature photography may lend itself to exciting and never-seen-before images.

I also believe drone use covering conflicts will provide safer means of obtaining aerial views.


Avery Holton (The University of Utah, U.S.)


Avery Holton is currently an Assistant Professor and Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, where he co-leads the Communicating Health and Science Media Lab. His research engages the intersections of digital and social media, mass media, and health. He co-authored the research “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities, barriers, and the future of drone journalism“.

follow: @averyholton

Top 3 challenges and opportunities for drones in journalism:

UAVs continue to offer a wealth of opportunities and challenges in journalism.

Perhaps chief among the opportunities is the affordance of journalists and the public to experiment with new ways to gather and share news.

Innovation as a core value is sometimes overlooked, but it remains a substantial contribution of technologies such as UAVs.

Even despite some regulatory and governmental barriers, people have the opportunity to engage a new and exciting technology in ways that can help shape the collection and distribution of news content while also contributing to the development of more effective policies toward UAV use.

The area with the most potential:

This is an interesting question, and I’m sure you’ll have myriad responses.

Personally, the prospect of combining VR cameras with drones is a very intriguing one. VR technology has come quite far as of recent, now giving us self-stitching, realtime, 360-degree VR experiences.

Most of these remain relatively grounded for various reasons, but mounting an Ozo or similar camera to a UAV isn’t that far off.

Doing so, especially with realtime self-stiching, could allow the public to experience new perspectives in more connected and engaging ways.

Imagine being able to hover over a disaster zone or experience an avalanche as it’s triggered. That’s very powerful stuff.


Kathleen Culver (Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin; MediaShift, U.S.)

Kathleen CulverKathleen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. She researches implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and education curator for MediaShift.

follow: @kbculver

Top 3 opportunities for drones in journalism:

  1. Expanding our reach to sense data and capture photos and videos to better inform the public.
  2. Widening the circle of journalists and outlets who can capture high-quality images and gather data because drones lower the cost barrier to entry.
  3. Technological advances that will enable 360 capture and help journalism expand into virtual reality.

Top 3 challenges of drones in journalism:

  1. Our own industry behaviors. A small but predictable minority will misuse drones and damage our credibility with the public and our support from regulators.
  2. Privacy and other legal concerns. We’re nowhere near resolving a dizzying patchwork of federal, state and even municipal measures that will affect journalists trying to use drones.
  3. Newsworthiness. I fear there is a serious disconnection between what journalists think is important to capture and share and what the public values as part of news. We face increasing suspicion and have to be ready to justify why we are using drones and what legitimate public good they serve.

The area with the most potential:

The area with the greatest potential, to me, is capturing 360 video to build virtual reality pieces that immerse audiences within environments.

I suspect this will be the most powerful in transporting audiences to distressed areas, to better engage them with the world’s struggles and elevate human understanding. However, we know so little about the effects of this kind of immersion, so it should be approached with caution.


My recap:

Top 5 Opportunities for Drones in Journalism (identified by 15 experts)

I combined the opinion of the experts interviewed in categories and counted the number of mentions. These are the top 5 opportunities by number of experts who mentioned them:

#1 Extended options for storytelling – 12 mentions

Being able to fly and shoot from above the ground, to “fly through doors, in and out of buildings etc” (Ben Kreimer), to “reach places otherwise visually inaccessible” (Astrid Glynnid), to fly when helicopters are not allowed to, to “get to places too dangerous for humans to go” (Julian March), drones extend options for storytelling, creating unique footage but also offering “greater depth and perspective in storytelling” (Andrew Clark), creating “different perspective and unique dynamic for storytellers” (John Mills).

#2 Cost effectiveness/affordability – 11 mentions

Drones allow small and local newsrooms to take footage that only media organizations with big budgets could afford in the past. They “level the playing field” (Jeff Ducharme). They represent “a huge money-saver” (Sally French) on footage acquisition costs and provide cost effective coverage.

#3 Data gathering – 6 mentions

“Multispectral imagery and photogrammetry allow for data-driven report” (Matthew Schroyer). “Drones will start carrying more sensors capable of gathering data” (Ben Kreimer). “Equipping UAVs with environmental, pollution or other sensors will be a rich opportunity in years to come. Drone data journalism will be an exciting area in the coming years” (John Mills). “The most interesting use of drones in journalism to me, is in the area of investigative reporting. When a drone is equipped with sensors to measure, for example, air pollution or radiation.” (Stijn Postema).

#4 Integration with emerging innovative technologies – 6 mentions

The possibility to integrate drones with technologies such as 3D or VR offer opportunities to expand beyond the first visual layer. “Images from drones can create 3D reconstructions of real environments and structures which represent a completely new way of bringing media consumers into real spaces, albeit virtually” (Ben Kreimer). “There is a subtle but powerful movement happening that is pulling emergent technologies into journalism to create entirely new ways to deliver stories and information” (Matthew Schroyer). “The prospect of combining VR cameras with drones is a very intriguing one” (Avery Holton).

#5 Human life saving/safety for journalists & operators – 4 mentions

“Drones can be used at an altitude just above ground level or very close to the subjects, where flying a helicopter would not only be aeronautically impossible but extremely dangerous to the crew” (Mickey Osterreicher). “Drones are also great for getting to places too dangerous for humans to go” (Julian March).

(Top image credits: Typewriter Man! by starmanseries, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Slightly modified by Marco Mancosu)