Yes, the University of Missouri is still pursuing drones


A somewhat mystifying article appeared in the Associated Press today, about how the University of Missouri School of Journalism plans to seek approval from the FAA to fly drone aircraft.

Clearly this is true, but it bears some clarification.  The article linked above says that the application will allow us to “resume the use of news-gathering drones”, which is technically accurate, but the issue is far more complicated than that.  A Certificate of Authorization comes with it a huge set of regulations that will make “drone journalism,” as we’ve come to know it, all but impossible.  Flight will occur only within a predetermined, relatively small, contiguous space. Our ability to travel and respond to events (key attributes of field reporting) will be entirely curtailed.  Call it a quibble, but I’m not sure everyone knows these details.

The second thing I’d like to clarify is less quibble and more mystery.  As one can see from the blog post below, all of this information is old news.  Over a month old. Some news outlets ran with this story last month, and I expect that some who missed it the first time around will run the “new” one as well. I’m available for quotes (email in the sidebar) but please be aware of the timeline and context around this issue.

Missouri Drone Journalism Program to reconfigure goals after FAA letter

When the Senate reauthorized the FAA in 2012, the agency was tasked with bringing unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace.  Until then, drone flights are extremely restricted

When the Senate reauthorized the FAA in 2012, the agency was tasked with bringing unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace. Until then, drone flights are extremely restricted

Through the eight months the Missouri Drone Journalism Program has operated, we’ve flown under the guidelines the FAA has set down for remote control aircraft. Those guidelines are generally as follows: a pilot may not fly above 400 feet, over populated areas, or near airports. A pilot may not fly beyond his range of sight, or without manual control.

Most of the showy stuff you’ve seen on youtube is outside of these boundaries as we’ve interpreted them. Because most private property extends to 500 ft in the air, we do not fly over land where we lack landowner permission. Because of how strictly we interpret the manual-control guideline, we do not use widely available GPS-guided flight.

Still, we’ve managed to safely produce high-quality, real pieces of journalism. We flew over public prairie to cover a controlled burn. And we flew over public waterways to get footage for a piece on fracking along the Missouri River.

Last month the Missouri Drone Journalism Program received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requesting that we cease all outdoor flight until we obtain what’s called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. Our colleagues at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received one too.

The FAA is still working on a full set of regulations for Unmanned Aerial Systems like our drones. But the agency does have a special certification process for “public agencies.” These include police agencies, fire departments and universities. The FAA considers our program a “public agency” and therefore asks that we apply for a COA in order to continue outdoor flight.

We intend to apply for a COA and we have no reason to think we will be denied. But it will significantly change the way we act as a program.

We will only be able to fly outdoors when within a single, small, contiguous airspace that is not a populated area. Any photography we obtain with the drone will be within this small space.

For the past several months, we were primarily concerned with the creation of news content with drone flight. Within a defined airspace, its hard to imagine the kinds of stories we can produce.

To reflect this new reality, the Program will spend the fall semester researching and applying for a COA.  Once submitted, the COA will take about 60 business days to complete. Assuming the application is successful, in the spring we will work with a team of students to pursue the development of drone technology and techniques for journalism. We will experiment with different types of aircraft, sensors and cameras. Our research will help to lay a foundation for the future of drone journalism.

New story: Northern states enjoy an oil boom with free Missouri River water

Missouri River water fuels North Dakota fracking boom from KBIA FM on Vimeo.

In the summer of 2012, midwestern states like Missouri were hit hard by a regional drought. The lack of rainfall wasn’t just hurting crops, it was hurting industry. The Missouri river is a major traffic lane for barges carrying all manner of commodities up and down the region. When the river runs low, traffic stalls and eventually stops.

That’s just one reason why we found it odd that companies to the north of Missouri were drawing massive amounts of water from the Missouri River. Oil and gas companies in North Dakota need steady supplies of water for their drilling and fracking operations and the Missouri River is the most plentiful source.

In April of this year, reporter Brendan Gibbons followed the Missouri River to visit our northern neighbors. He found that not only were the oil and gas companies successfully drawing water wherever they needed it, but they were doing so for free.

A skilled drone pilot, Gibbons collected aerial photography of drilling operations along the Missouri River. View the video above and read the story on

Drone team flies over excavation site

cahokiaLast April drone journalism reporters Cade Cleavelin and Gwen Girsdansky members visited the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville Illinois.  The mounds are earthwork structures made by an ancient, massive metropolitan society that once rivaled some of the biggest cities in the world in population.  Little is known about how their society was structured and a team of archaeologists from Italy are investigating.

The team flew the drone over the excavation site to get some great views of the mounds and the digs.  Read the full story at it’s home on KBIA.  And check out the video, produced by Cade Cleavelin:

Archaeologists unearth more clues to ancient Cahokia civilization from KBIA FM on Vimeo.

Missouri House Bill No. 46

Scott Pham and Casey Guernsey

Scott Pham, director of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, speaks with Rep. Casey Guernsey at an early hearing for HB 46 on February 5, 2013. Photo by Jaime Cooke.

The Missouri Drone Journalism Program has been aware of HB 46 since it was introduced by Rep. Casey Guernsey early this year.  Today, a version of the bill has gained first round approval from the Missouri House and now the Associated Press is inaccurately  reporting that it prevents journalists from using drones.

The bill explicitly calls out journalists, but the text of the bill actually allows for the use of drones over land where the property owner has given permission:

 3. No person, group of persons, entity, or organization, including, but not limited to, journalists, reporters, or news organizations, shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of any individual or property owned by an individual or business without the consent of that individual or property owner.

We have been operating under similar restrictions since the Program began and we do not believe this bill will shut us down or prevent us from pursuing more stories.

We are, however, deeply concerned with the bill and its implications for journalism as a whole.

Read the official text of HB 46 here.