Journalism-by-Drone Provides New Fodder for Drone Debate

Saturday, February 22, 2014
Photo of car crash taken by private drone (photo: Pedro Rivera, AP)

A news photographer in Connecticut is suing the local police department after they ordered him to stop using a drone to capture images of a fatal car accident.


Pedro Rivera, who works as an on-call photographer and editor for television station WFSB, used a small, unmanned aerial vehicle carrying a camera to fly over the accident scene in Hartford. Although Rivera claimed that he was filming on his own and not collecting images for his employer, he admitted that he does at times forward a video feed from his drone to the station.


Rivera said that he stayed outside the perimeter that police established around the accident and that his drone flew about 150 feet above where officers were working.


At no time did he interfere with the investigation or break the law, according to Rivera.


But police say his drone could have jeopardized public safety. They also say Rivera violated federal rules regulating drones in U.S. airspace.


Officers “demanded that the plaintiff cease operating the device over the accident scene, and that he leave the area,” according to Rivera’s lawsuit.


His attorney, Norman Pattis, claims his client was acting within the law. “Private citizens do not need local, state or federal approval to operate a remote-controlled model aircraft,” Pattis wrote in the lawsuit.


But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) disagrees, and is investigating the February 1 incident.


All drone flights in the U.S. are supposed to be cleared with the FAA, according to the agency. Drone advocates, however, contend that there is no written policy to back that stance, especially as far as commercial drones are concerned.


Following the incident, the police contacted WFSB to complain about Rivera’s actions, which resulted in his suspension from work for one week.


In his lawsuit, Rivera claims one officer in particular, Lt. Brian Foley, “intended to chill, and did chill, the plaintiff in his First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” and that “Defendant Foley was inspired by improper motive: to wit, to prevent the public at large to have video reports of what police officers do in the investigation of a crime.”


“The problem, I think, is simple,” Rivera told Motherboard. “The police don’t want to be watched, period. I wasn’t charged. I didn’t violate anything. They went after my job.”


Rivera is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations.


The incident is indicative of the legalities and other considerations—from law enforcement to privacy—that are in the midst of being tackled by the FAA and others with regard to private and commercial drone use in the U.S. Once it sorts itself out, drone journalism may well take off, according to Matt Waite, who heads the University of Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab.


“It’s not that terribly different from journalism from a manned aircraft,” Waite told National Public Radio’s station WBUR. “It's using these small get up in the air and get a perspective on a news event. You can think of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, anything with a large spatial extent.”


“They’re starting to see them being used around the world at large protests in Thailand, at the super-typhoon, even in sporting events in Australia,” he added. “It’s the small form factor and the low cost that make them attractive… [But] there are a large number of unanswered questions that need to be answered before you will see this being done in a widespread fashion.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

U.S. Newsman Says He Was Arrested for Using a Drone Camera (by Christine Stuart, Courthouse News Service)

A Journalist Almost Lost His Job For Droning A Deadly Car Crash (by Jason Koebler, Motherboard)

Journalism Professor Says FAA Drone Rules Hurt Reporting (National Public Radio)

FAA Investigating Possible Illegal Use Of Drone At Hartford Crash Scene (by Beau Berman, Fox CT)

Connecticut Car Crash Highlights Challenges in Regulating Civilian Drones (by Cameron Scott, Singularity Hub)

Federal Government Clashes with Commercial Drone Industry (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Senate Explores Private and Law Enforcement Use of Drones in U.S. (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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