Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:
‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.
In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.
Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.
Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.
Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism
The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.
The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.
Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.
In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.
For some, drones still conjure images of death and destruction – that has been their most widely reported use. But that reality is fast changing. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for many peaceful purposes, from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
Drones come in various shapes and sizes: as miniature fixed-wing airplanes or, more commonly, quadcopters and other multi-bladed small helicopters. All types are getting simpler, cheaper and more versatile.
Unlike radio-controlled model aircraft, which aviation hobbyists have used for decades, UAVs are equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a camera controlled by the autopilot. These battery operated flying machines can be manually controlled or pre-programmed for an entire, low altitude flight.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 25 Sep 2016), I survey the many civilian applications of drones – and the legal, ethical and technical challenges they pose.
Drones are already being used in Sri Lanka by photographers, TV journalists and political parties but few seem to respect public safety or privacy of individuals.
I quote Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher and activist on ICTs, who in August 2016 conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone journalism which I attended. I agree with his view: drones are here to stay, and are going to be used in many applications. So the sooner we sort out public safety and privacy concerns, the better for all.