LINCOLN–“The drone age is here and we’re screwing it up,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Matt Waite said Wednesday at the university’s biannual Chancellor’s Lecture Series. He used personal anecdotes, historical lessons and legal perspectives to illustrate the complex nature of ever-growing civilian and commercial drone usage.
Waite is credited with starting the first journalism drone lab in the country at UNL and has trained more than 400 people in drone operation. Before coming to the university, Waite earned wide recognition as creator of the fact-checking website PolitiFact, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
According to Waite, drone journalism revolutionizes the way journalists cover stories involving large spatial scope, like natural disasters. It also benefits investigative reporting, as in the case of a drone camera capturing an industrial facility dumping waste into a city’s water source. Waite noted, however, the drone age’s downsides, covering everything from collisions with other aircraft to concerned citizens shooting down their neighbor’s drone.
Waite’s critiques of how the drone age is being handled center on the inefficiency of federal agencies, lack of foresight in legislatures and a general overreaction from citizens. Waite’s interest in the legal issues of drone usage was sparked when, in 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration informed him he needed a pilot’s license to operate any drone–even one no bigger than his hand.
Despite the growing prevalence of drones in the new millennium, the agency had yet to establish regulations and licensing specifically for drone operations.
To explain the challenges that face drone advocates today, Waite offered a brief historical overview of how airspace law has evolved. From the Roman conception of common property law, to the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court case of World War II bombers disrupting a family farm, Waite lamented that legally defining the sky as a public space took centuries.
In the absence of a responsive federal agency, Waite said that the states have largely taken the matter of creating drone laws it into their own hands. He shared his doubts about this approach, showing examples of state legislation that not only contradicted the aerial public space ruling of 1947 but also violated Supreme Court rulings regarding right to privacy.
Waite expressed frustration regarding a recent bill proposed in the Nebraska Legislature, one of several drone bills that have been drafted but not yet adopted in the state. Waite said that in its current wording, the bill would automatically deem anyone whose drone accidentally lands on someone else’s property a criminal.
“Leave technology out of it,” Waite said. “We need laws that stop the behavior we don’t like, not the technology used to execute that behavior.” He referenced the proposed Nebraska bill, stating that, since Nebraska’s strict Peeping Tom laws were already in place, separately criminalizing the invasion of privacy by drones should be seen as unnecessary.
Despite many legal hurdles in his experimentation with drones, Waite’s efforts have ensured that several students from UNL will be among the first in the country to graduate from a college of journalism as licensed drone pilots.
“Let’s not do anything that’s going to set us back,” Waite said. “It took our ancestors over 50 years to figure out aviation [regulation]. I’m hoping we can do this a lot faster.”