During her time as editor of Inside Unmanned Systems, Divis has seen the miniature flying machines evolve into a newsroom must-have.
In the midstream of a journalism career that had already taken her to the Washington Examiner, United Press International, and Inside GNSS, Dee Ann Divis decided to start a magazine — about drones. And in the five years since, she’s seen the miniature flying machines evolve from novel curiosity to newsroom must-have. Whether by air, land, or water, unmanned systems can produce cinematic imagery “on a news budget,” she said as she spoke to Knight Science Journalism fellows in May.
A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow, Divis is the founding editor of Inside Unmanned Systems, the world’s leading independent magazine about drones and their applications. During her talk, she detailed the many reasons journalists might want to incorporate drones into their reporting.
To start, drones can literally capture new perspectives, she said as she showed dramatic footage from the Sinclair Broadcast Group of helicopters flying over Nebraska’s Niobrara River during a devastating flood in March. The images conveyed the staggering scope of the inundation, showing grey, muddy water washing over wide freeways and houses standing halfway submerged.
Another advantage of drones, said Divis, is that they can make large trends more understandable. She illustrated the point with an aerial photo of a neighborhood in Mumbai. A sharp line — a single, straight road — delineated two neighborhoods: one with spacious rooftops surrounded by greenery; the other a mosaic of smaller roofs squished together. There, in stark imagery, was the difference between the haves and the have nots.
Divis noted that journalists are also using drones to capture images that would otherwise be impossible or too dangerous to take. They can swerve past polar bears or glide inches from the ocean to view a massive walrus emerging from the waters.
To show off drones’ cinematic potential, Divis played a video showing a panning, close-up shot of tulips. Suddenly, the shot lifted up to reveal a vast garden; people were specks. The drone soared high above vast alternating rows of red and yellow tulips — the same flowers that had been just inches away moments earlier.
This much is clear: Newsrooms are taking notice of drones’ potential to enrich reporting. Mickey Osterreicher of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) estimates that there are about 1,000 pilots flying drones for the purpose of gathering images and information for news.
With the surge in popularity has come heightened attention on safety and regulation. In the U.S., you need a pilot license to operate a drone for journalistic purposes, and all drones need to be registered. Right now, most drone operators are not allowed to fly over people, though the Federal Aviation Administration makes rare exceptions.
But drone regulations vary from state to state and city to city, said Divis. In certain cities, drones can fly without permission in uncontrolled airspace, as long as they are not within five miles of an airport. But Washington D.C., for example, has a city-wide no-fly zone, one of the strictest policies in the U.S.
Divis added that, as drones have grown in popularity, she has noticed that new pilots seem less likely to follow federally recommended safety precautions. It’s important to remember that drones are actually aircrafts, and if they go down, they can hurt or kill people, she said. “You need a real reason to go out and shoot drone footage.”