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Doug's Diggings: No drones – yet – in the Star-Observer news department

I don’t suspect the Star-Observer will be unleashing a “drone attack photo” anytime soon, but like other technological innovations, it may be coming sooner than I think.

I’m sure most everyone has seen examples of drones taking photos of various events. Drones, of course, are unmanned flying devices that can be equipped with cameras. They can then be directed to fly over an area, snapping photos as fast as possible and returned for a safe landing and leave the operator with a file full of photos.

We first heard about drones in war zones – the unmanned aircraft could deliver a blow to an enemy without harming a pilot.

Oddly enough, the first time I think I heard about ordinary people using a drone was to snap photos over a beach on the East Coast. A young lad built (or purchased) a drone and equipped it with a camera and directed the contraption to take photos from the air. A young lady saw the drone and became so upset, she followed the device to its landing point and essentially assaulted the young drone pilot. She accused him of invading her privacy.

Of course, the young woman soon discovered that it was not illegal for a person to take photos on a public beach -- most of us have done it! But, in general, it has always been from ground level.

I bring up drones in relationship to the newspaper because a recent article in a trade publication had a front-page story about the possibility of the media using drones. The first paragraph read: With the prices of sophisticated drones now at roughly the price of an old used car, newspapers are looking longingly at their use in covering tough-to-reach spots -- like hurricane or tornado disaster areas, environmental wastelands and even highway accidents.

By the way, a pretty sophisticated drone can be purchased on Amazon for a mere $700.

The story went on the say that freelance and staff photographers are “salivating” over the possibilities for photojournalism.

Well, I’m not salivating just yet. But I wasn’t salivating over the introduction of emails and newspaper websites a decade or two ago but that didn’t stop it from happening! The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has founded one of the first university drone journalism labs. The concept has been endorsed by many journalism schools already, with students across the world being taught the viability of using drones while in high-risk areas to get a story and keep the actual journalist safe.

Laws on drone use, of course, are still murky. The Federal Aviation Administration -- so far -- has maintained a position that unmanned aerial vehicles operated by journalists are illegal. The first amendment, which includes freedom of the press, has the FAA in a bit of a pickle. Congress has now gotten involved and ordered the FAA to develop a plan by 2015 that integrates the use of drones with other aircraft.

To date, there are positive and negative stories about drones all over the Internet. Some of the positive are the delivery of food and groceries, inspecting oil rigs, transporting medicine and supplies, assist in search and rescue, fighting crime, monitor wild life, protecting border and a long list of other possibilities.

On the negative side, the biggest fear is that drones will interfere with commercial -- and other -- air travel.

On May 29, the pilot of a commercial airliner descending toward LaGuardia Airport in New York saw what appeared to be a black drone with a 10-to-15-foot wingspan about 5,500 feet above Lower Manhattan. In another incident, two airliners separately approaching Los Angeles International Airport soared past what they described as a drone or remote-controlled aircraft the size of a trash can at an altitude of 6,500 feet.

The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian airplanes and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace. Hazardous occurrences are becoming more frequent as more drones -- legal and illegal -- take to the skies, according to a year-long investigation by The Washington Post.

The Post investigation said that in 15 cases over the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft, including those incidents in New York and Los Angeles. Other similar reports came from other airports across the country.

The paper also reported that civilian drones flown with the FAA’s permission and under its scrutiny are also susceptible to crashes. Since November 2009, law enforcement agencies, universities and other registered drone users have reported 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents, according to FAA records.

In June, the National Park Service announced it is prohibiting drones from all NPS-controlled lands and waters. That includes 84 million acres in every state and territory, including monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, rivers and trails.

It all comes down to noise and safety, said Director Jonathan Jarvis in a statement announcing the policy.

Two days after the National Park Service banned drones in all 401 national parks, a 68-year-old California man reported that his drone was stuck in a tree at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

On June 22, 2014, the man was ordered to pay a $100 fine and a $25 fee, which he did.

The situation marks one of the milder incidents, as drone-related reports within national parks continue after the June 20 NPS-wide ban. As recently as early August 2014, a drone went down in the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

“We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic, and cultural landscapes in our care,” Jonathan Jarvis, the NPS director, said in the statement on June 20. “However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.”

Like so many things – the impact of drones is still being formulated. As of now, the Star-Observer has no plans to incorporate a “drone department.”

Doug Stohlberg

Doug Stohlberg has been part of the Hudson Star-Observer since 1973 and has been editor since 1987. He worked at the New Richmond News from 1971 to 1973. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

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