Cyclone Winston has provided the perfect conditions to test the newsgathering capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – in crisis situations.
Here, Australian cameraman, Brant Cumming, piloted a drone above buildings in Fiji to emphasises the scale of the cyclone’s destruction for the ABC.
The drone captured video footage of the damage, while maintaining a live feed to its pilot on the ground.
Content gathered from the drone was then compiled, before being transmitted to the newsroom in Australia, where it was later broadcasted online.
As the ABC has shown, Australian media outlets are moving towards drones as another newsgathering tool.
Drones can be used during a crisis, when it may be difficult or dangerous for journalists to report.
They have zero chance of being unwell, tired, emotional or distracted; factors that could potentially endanger the journalist or the journalist’s reporting of a story.
Drones can also ‘replace’ journalists during day-to-day activities, cutting down man-hours, physical activities and sick days.
As an added bonus, drones are cheap, expendable and replaceable.
They can also provide the public with far more dynamic crisis-based stories than a journalist could safely provide on the ground.
“Whether it’s because of the physical limitations of the human body (we can’t fly), or because of floods, avalanches, fires… drones provide access to spaces that reporters can’t themselves reach,” says Ben Kreimer, head technologist for the Drone Journalism Lab.
“Drones can cover a lot of ground very fast, and capture images, videos, and other kinds of data from a range of different perspectives,” says Mr Kreimer.
Founder of Drone Journalism Law and award-winning investigative reporter, Matthew Waite, agrees.
“The main advantage of drones in any situation is that they provide context and a sense of scale,” says Professor Waite.
“A slightly elevated view of a scene can greatly aid in showing people just how big something is, or how far something extends. Describing spatial extent is very hard. A drone helps a tremendous amount.”
These advantages are predicted to lead to an increase in drone journalism in areas of conflict, where civil and environmental hazards can affect local reporting.
If successful, this will reduce the risk of harm to journalists in conflict zones and allow the newsgathering of more significant content.
But while drone journalism might be the future of crisis reporting, Mr Kreimer says that at present, it’s still hindered by legal restrictions.
“The legal restrictions became an issue last year following the April earthquake in Nepal,” he says. “A flood of foreigners descended on Nepal with the drones. They had good intentions, but not all operators were responsible, so Nepal suddenly banned drones.”
And Nepal was not the first to do so.
Most countries have also restricted or prohibited the use of drones. These restrictions are often based on the ethical concern that drones violate the personal privacy or security of the people being filmed.
“If you were using [drones] in a conflict zone, in a place with large groups of displaced people, you are most likely flying over people who might be frightened by a strange flying machine,” says Professor Waite.
“They might, through no fault of your own, see it as hostile. It might even cause a panic. Even if it didn’t, causing psychological harm to displaced people isn’t ethical.”
Despite this, Mr Kreimer says drone journalism is still evolving.
“Drones are like computers,” he says. “Flying a drone to take aerial images is like using a computer for word processing. Word processing is a basic use of a computer; yet it’s invaluable. Same with drones and aerial photographs or videos. There’s so much more that a computer can do, and the same goes for drones.”