Why Langara College is teaching its journalism students how to use drones

Photo courtesy of Langara College journalism student Tyler Hooper

By Ethan Baron

It swoops, it soars, it hovers, it rips up the sky like a bat out of hell. But best of all, it shoots high-resolution imagery from the air.

Photo courtesy of Langara College journalism student Tyler Hooper

By Ethan Baron

It swoops, it soars, it hovers, it rips up the sky like a bat out of hell. But best of all, it shoots high-resolution imagery from the air.

In January, the journalism department at Langara College, in Vancouver, launched one of the two first-in-Canada news-drone courses. The 12 students in our one-year certificate of journalism program are learning to fly a camera-bearing quadcopter drone and control its smartphone-operated high-definition-video and stills camera. The students are also studying the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of drones to cover news.

Already, journalists around the world have started using drones to obtain video and still imagery of news events: a fire in the Vancouver-area suburbs, the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, civil unrest in Thailand and the Sochi Olympics. “Aerial cameras carried by drones allow news media to access sites difficult or impossible to reach by other means and provide an eagle's-eye perspective of what's happening on the ground. Every news outlet wants one and the legal permission to fly it.

We're teaching students on a $1,200 drone—the DJI Innovations Phantom 2 Vision—, with four rotors and a built-in 14-megapixel camera that stores imagery on its memory card and also beams it to a smartphone. The aircraft, controlled with a two-joystick console resembling those used for video games, is about the diameter of a medium pizza and weighs a kilo and a half.

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This drone can cover 15 metres per second and fly about 300 metres from the pilot before going into auto-return mode.

We’ve divided our drone class into three teams of four students: a pilot, an aerial camera operator, a producer/spotter and a ground camera operator. Students rotate through the duties.

We founded a drone program—simultaneously with Newfoundland's College of the North Atlantic—to give students a cutting-edge skill to help them secure work in media when they graduate, and to do our job as a journalism program and send out students equipped with leading-edge capabilities who will push Canadian journalism forward.

Now, in addition to learning how to research, interview, write and edit, produce multimedia stories and understand legal and ethical issues, our students are getting trained to participate in the most dramatic development in visual journalism since the birth of digital media.

The abrupt take-off of drone technology, and falling prices for the machines, have put them into far more hands than those of journalists. Drones are increasingly employed for science and commercial use, by geologists mapping out terrain, biologists studying wildlife and Realtors marketing high-end homes. Some drones can be flown remotely, far out of sight. Recreational drone use is exploding, with entry-level camera-carrying units costing a few hundred dollars. Marketers have floated the prospect of drones delivering pizza, beer and consumer goods. The RCMP is flying drones over road crashes and for search and rescue.

In an unregulated future of personal, commercial, governmental and educational drones competing for air space, we'd be living under a steady rain of late-night snacks, laptops, cameras and whirling rotor blades. Unpleasant scenarios come to mind: a delivery drone colliding with a spy-on-thy-neighbour's-wife drone above a backyard party; a flock of drone-erazzi hovering outside Justin Bieber's hotel room to catch him spray painting couches or nuzzling strippers or whatever.

Imagine at a large protest march, the drones of hobbyists, citizen journalists and news media are all jostling for perspective, with the machines piloted by operators with widely varying skills and ethics. For news-gatherers seeking the best-possible imagery, temptations will arise to deploy drones in hazardous or unethical ways.

Security issues exist: homemade and consumer drones could be used in assassinations or terror attacks. Concerns about the burgeoning drone use led U.S. authorities in July to shut down two university news-drone programs, pending country-wide drone legislation expected next year. In Canada, all non-recreational flying of drones, including educational use, requires a Transport Canada permit.

Transport Canada has been taking drones seriously since convening the Unmanned Air Vehicle Working Group in 2007. The agency appears to be putting considerable resources toward developing permit-issuing policies around the drone law, including in the area of journalism. What those policies turn out to be remains to be seen.

Drone students at Langara follow a lengthy list of rules addressing Transport Canada regulations, journalistic practices and ethics. High on the list are prohibitions against flying a drone within 30 metres of people or above anyone's head, distracting emergency officials with a drone or aggravating hostage-takers with one.

The school has obtained $500,000 in drone-liability insurance. As the lead instructor of the program, I'm taking a drone-aviation ground-school course.

While Transport Canada typically requires a separate permit for every drone flight, they've also allowed multiple deployments on the same permit, at different times, under specific location parameters for us. We're now working with the agency in the hopes of obtaining approval to use the drone to cover breaking news as well as for education.


Langara College instructor Ethan Baron is a journalist and photojournalist, who covers conflict and humanitarian crises in the developing world.



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