A team of tech wizards and journalists at the University of Missouri-Columbia are about to begin work on cutting-edge technology that's rapidly advancing into the world of journalism: Drones.
Not the kind that drop bombs -- that kind that can be flown to areas where news is breaking and can be filmed from the air, no pilot or camera crew required.
Scott Pham, the content director for KBIA and one of the heads of the project, secured the money through a technology grant and will get the know-how from a Mizzou IT guy who just so happens to also be a drone hobbyist.
Pham says the drone will be ultra-light, about the size of a medium pizza, and likens it to a remote controlled helicopter. And while there are similarities -- it is controlled by a person on the ground of course -- the drone is also capable of doing all kinds of amazing feats on its own. It adjusts for wind resistance and other flying obstacles on its own, and navigates with GPS and a compass. Though a drone could technically drive itself, current regulations dictate that a pilot must present at all times with the machine in sight.
"It's easy to fly. You do need training but you don't need a ton," says Pham.
The journalist's drone is also laden with lots of cool cameras that can capture photos, video, infrared, all from the air. Pham isn't totally certain what the Mizzou team will come up with yet, but for a truly gorgeous example of what drones are capable of, watch this hobbyist's footage of some of Detroit's surprisingly beautiful blight:
Can you imagine what it'd be like to turn a drone loose in St. Louis? It's an urban explorer's wet dream.
But not so fast. The use of drones also brings up a ton of ethical, privacy, and legal questions. The media had a minor conniption when it was rumored that the gossip site TMZ was after its own drone to ambush celebrity weddings and estates (it turned out to be a false report). Current Federal Aviation Administration law barely covers the use of the devices. To that end, Pham is also teaming up with a j-school professor to teach a class on drone journalism and its implications.
"We need to be thinking about how this kind of fits into the practice of journalism, not just in a practical way, but we want to have a wider perspective on it," he says. "There's going to be a lot of thought exercises."
Pham hopes to have something in flyable condition for the first day of class this coming semester but he says he's not going to allow his students to experience the ethical gray areas of drone journalism first-hand.
"We will not be flying over private property," he says. "We may not be even filming people at all. It's not clear how legal that is at this point."
We'll be keeping up with the droneses through Pham as his fascinating project comes together. Stay tuned.