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A journalism instructor dishes on drones

As we saw in part 1 of this series, it is illegal to use drones for any commercial purpose; that is, not without applying for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), a process that can take weeks.

And if you think a drone used by a college for educational purposes would be exempt from such regulation, you’re wrong.

The journalism program at the College of the North Atlantic campus in Stephenville acquired a drone recently, for use in its photo-journalism course. But each and every time they use it, they need an SFOC.

“The Transport Canada rules do apply,” said Jeff Ducharme, a former journalist (and a very good one, at that) who is now an instructor in the journalism program. “If you make money from your drone, you’re considered ‘commercial.’ And they believe that, if a school is making money – directly or indirectly – from the drone, then you fall under the commercial regulations.”

That a college can’t use a drone for educational purposes seems a trifle unreasonable to me. And while it may be tempting to hike into the woods and fly that baby without permission, Ducharme will have none of it.

“There are others out there who are not following regulations,” he said. “But we are. We’re teaching the students to be responsible, so we’d better be responsible to a fault... We spend most of the time teaching them the laws, how to fly it responsibly, the ethics and legal issues. Because that’s what going to make or break this technology.”

Drone technology is not new, Ducharme said, but it is certainly seeing a strong surge in popularity for both commercial and recreational use. And many people are watching this growth with some measure of alarm, for fear that this ‘eye in the sky’ represents yet another invasion of privacy.

“A recent survey shows that Americans don’t like drones very much,” Ducharme said. “There’s a state in the U.S. that’s trying to pass a law that will allow citizens to shoot them out of the sky, if they fly over their property.”

(That survey is quite likely from Pew Research, which found that 63 percent of respondents feel that it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly in U.S. airspace.)

What recreational users do with drones is one thing and not entirely predictable. However, fears about journalists with drones are probably unfounded, according to Ducharme.

“That’s where people get it wrong with drones,” Ducharme said. “They think that news media will buy the drones and then at 9 in the morning everyone is going to launch these drones and see people selling drugs, having illegal fires in their back yards, and searching for stories. The drones are not there to be used to look for stories. You will not see drones flying around your town wearing a fedora and press card.”

Current drone camera technology uses wide angle or fisheye lenses, which push the subject further back to show a wider image area.

“For that drone to see any detail in the person who is standing below them, it has to be hovering close enough to you that you can knock it out of the sky with a broom. It can still see you and I imagine if you were doing something illegal it could probably make it out…. As for invasive technology, it could certainly be used for that. But if I fly a drone and do something wrong, it’s a $5000 fine for the individual from Transport Canada and could be as much as $25,000 to the corporation. That’s for a commercial flyer who breaks the rules.”

The real problem, Ducharme said, is recreational flyers – people who can operate drones completely free of regulation (as long as they don’t sell any of the data they capture). In its SFOC approval process, Transport Canada restricts how drones can be used, but there are none for recreational users.

“The recreational flyers have no such regulations. They can fly anytime they want over pretty much anything. There are no rules. There are common sense guidelines which you hope they follow. So it concerns me, I think they are the ones… who will probably cause some accidents. These things can fly with a forward speed of about 25 mph…and can rise at a vertical speed of 6 meters a second. It’s incredibly fast… and it weighs 1200 grams. Imagine what something weighing 1200 grams going 25 mph can do to somebody…. The recreational flyer who goes to his kid’s soccer game and decides to launch the drone to get some cool shots for his Facebook page, those are the ones who concern me. Because they have nothing to lose. We, as journalists, have something to lose. We have this technology to lose. We have credibility and in some cases our jobs to lose. I’m not saying that all recreational flyers are like this. But they are the ones who concern me. And I think we all need to be regimented. We all need to face the same regulations across the board.”

The solution, Ducharme thinks, is to require all drone operators to take some form of training, adhere to some clear safety and privacy guidelines, and have all drones individually licensed, like automobiles. Last year, he added, Transport Canada formed a working group to research drone usage and offer recommendations on how the technology should be governed. 

“One of the recommendations was that any drone under 26 kilos would be for most part deregulated. You would no longer need a SFOC for that drone, but you would need a permit to fly one… whether it’s a test you need to take, but they want these drones under 26 kg to fly under a permit. And that’s a pretty big drone… because most of the drones that the guys are flying are up to 1500 grams.”

Ducharme said he has seen one report that predicts there will be some 30,000 drones in U.S. civil and commercial airspace by the ear 2030.

“And that leads to another problem: what do you do at a police scene when five of these drones show up? It has potential danger for the police officers. Most operate under the same frequency so there is an issue of contamination… will they come up with a jamming device? … These things are going to have to be dealt with. The issue now is the technology is new and people are going into it with such vigour, the enthusiasm people have with the technology is kind of over running the regulation of it.”

With all that said, Ducharme is a major booster of drone technology, pointing out that it can benefit society in numerous ways, beyond journalistic applications. He said it can be useful for police, security companies, environmental monitoring, and to catch poachers and illegal dumpers.

“These drones can also be brilliant for search and rescue – absolutely brilliant,” he said. “Using a ground station, you can punch in way points and they will go off and fly the search grid. If the drone is large enough it could carry a survival kit with it… and drop it down when you find the person.” 

But journalism is the subject of this blog, and drone technology stands to revolutionize the way news is gathered.

“It opens up the whole aerial photography thing to anything from a two-person weekly to the largest news organization,” Ducharme said. “In this province, really the only people who were renting helicopters and going up to get aerial footage was CBC for the most part. And now, we can all do that…”

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