Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists

Yesterday my colleague, Acton Gorton, sent me an email that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group representing defense, civil and commercial drone developers and operators, had released a “code of conduct” for the unmanned aircraft systems industry.

“This code is intended to provide our members, and those who design, test, and operate UAS for public and civil use, a set of guidelines and recommendations for safe, non‐intrusive operations,” the code reads. “Acceptance and adherence to this code will contribute to safety and professionalism and will accelerate public confidence in these systems.”

The code is broken into three sections, relating to “safety,” “professionalism,” and “respect.” The code is good as a framework for further discussion, but it’s not terribly specific as-is. For example, the safety portion of the code requires “crew fitness for flight operations,” but mentions no standards by which crew fitness should be judged. Likewise, it requires “Reliability, performance, and airworthiness to established standards,” but does not specify what those standards might be.

The AUVSI also is not the first to develop a code for UAS operations. That first likely belongs to RCAPA, the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association. The RCAPA has an extensive list of guidelines that cover drone construction, flight operations (including checks for control systems, and operations before, during and after flight), and even maintenance logs.

AUVSI likely is keeping broad definitions because it is trying to cover large swaths of the drone industry, which encompasses a wide variety of devices and goals, whereas RCAPA is mostly aiming to represent individual professionals and hobbyists who use drones specifically for aerial photography. But both are similar in that they are trying to safeguard the people who develop and operate drones.

When I launched DroneJournalism.org in December, 2011, I had a purpose in mind: to become a hub for developing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism. Hoping to become the “Wiki of Drone Journalism,” I opened much of the website to professional colleagues who have an interest in the field. Registration is still opened to interested parties.

Since launching the site, my co-developer and I have built two fixed-wing drones, destroyed one of them in testing, and are cobbling together a multi-rotor journalism drone. But we’ve added very little to the site in terms of drone journalism ethics, and I hope to change that.

Some of the following is from previous posts on DroneJournalism.org, and those form the basis of a code for drone journalists I am proposing. The most recent additions to the code involves a tiered approach to drone journalism ethics that borrows from the philosophy of Maslow’s pyramid.

A code of ethics for drone journalists should be viewed as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century. Additionally, such considerations should not be viewed as the sum total or end of the ethical requirements for drone journalists, but is the minimum that is expected of a drone journalist. This code of ethics wiki, while hoping to address a variety of considerations and to provide case studies as examples, is not designed to be totally comprehensive. Rather, it is a set of guidelines, and the journalist will be the ultimate judge in the field of how to apply those guidelines.


Drone journalists should maintain all of the ethical expectations journalists who don’t use drones, with the added responsibility that comes with operating a flying vehicle. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), are vehicles piloted autonomously or remotely, and are vehicles capable of flying at some height. They can weight as little as a few ounces, or many hundreds of pounds. Some are designed to hover in the air, while others can travel hundreds of miles per hour. As the weight, altitude, and speed of these vehicles increases, the potential damage that they could inflict on people and property increases.

Drone journalists must realize that potential for harm with their unmanned vehicle, and take all possible measures to mitigate the odds of a crash. This necessarily entails that the drone is fully capable of controlled, stable flight, and that the drone pilot is trained in his or her equipment and is capable of safely flying the vehicle remotely. It also means that the pilot must know his or her capabilities, the capabilities of the vehicle, and must not exceed either of those limits during a flying mission.

Drones can be used by drone journalists for aerial photography, although drones are by no means limited to that function. The ability to take photographs from the sky makes the drones a powerful tool in the hands of a journalist. But the vantage point also offers the chance for abuse, especially in terms of privacy and safety.


Not only does drone journalism build on previous codes of journalism ethics (the SPJ and NPPA codes of ethics, for example), but drone journalism ethics can build on itself – that there are concepts within drone journalism that build on themselves – like a hierarchy.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who pioneered the idea of a hierarchy of needs for personal growth in the paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” This hierarchy can be visually represented as a pyramid with multiple layers, beginning with a layer that covers the most basic of needs. Those basic physiological needs include food and water, as well as breathing, sleep and sex. Once that need is satisfied, the person will seek to satisfy the next “highest need,” which are (in order) safety, love and belonging, and esteem.

“Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency,” Maslow wrote. “That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives.”

After managing to satisfy all the previous needs, a person reaches “self-actualization,” which is the notion that has different implications for different people:

“In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.”

An underlying premise in Maslow’s writing is that one must satisfy a basic problem before moving on to solving greater problems. Many code of ethics function as a list of rules, with the assumption that all rules must be followed. The greatest issue with this format is that it does not provide enough direction in terms of application: one might have to navigate all across a code of ethics before arriving at an applicable rule. It offers little in the way of advice in how to approach a problem, or how to break the problem down into manageable steps.

As in other journalism codes of ethics, the rules contained must be followed. But I propose a hierarchy of drone journalism ethics that helps guide journalists through its principles, rather than scatter them and leave it for the journalist to figure out. Journalists must meet all requirements of the code of ethics, but must assess their situation starting first from the most basic ethical questions. The order in which this pyramid of ethics is laid out is as such:


The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle. Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.

2) SAFETY. A drone operator must first be adequately trained in the operation of his or her equipment. The equipment itself must be in a condition suitable for safe and controlled flight. Additionally, the drone must not be flown in weather conditions that exceed the limits of the drone’s ability to operate safely, and it must be flown in a manner that ensures the safety of the public.

A drone operator must abide by the regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is operated whenever possible. An exception to this is provided in instances where journalists are unfairly blocked from using drones to provide critical information in accordance with their duties as members of the fourth estate. The drone must be operated in a manner which is least disruptive to the general population in a public setting.

4) PRIVACY. The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures. If at all possible, record only images of activities in public spaces, and censor or redact images of private individuals in private spaces that occur beyond the scope of the investigation.

5) TRADITIONAL ETHICS. As outlined by professional codes of conduct for journalists.

These rules are by no means a comprehensive guide to drone journalism ethics, but the purpose here is to outline the four basic tenants of drone journalism and then research those points further. As always, this code of ethics can be modified online at DroneJournalism.org.