Thursday, October 11, 2012

The case of Chicken v Bomber, and how it might impact drone law

The first thing you should know is if you run afoul (pun very much intended) of the law, I can’t bail you out. If you read the “About the Author” page on, you’ll note that I’m not a lawyer. My only legal qualifications are an undergraduate course in media law.

Having said that, I started researching drone law and writing back in March, shortly before the Brookings Institution organized a panel on domestic drones and privacy. The ACLU had just published a report in December 2011 called “Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” that referenced important Supreme Court cases that might play a role in drone law.

Just this week, Alexis Madrigal, the senior editor for the Technology channel at the Atlantic, wrote about two cases that could have some bearing on drone law, Guille v. Swan, and U.S. v. Causby. The latter involved dead chickens.

I’ll be writing about that case here. When we talk about drone laws, we’re talking about a speculative thing. To date, no journalist has been sued for violating rights of privacy with an unmanned aerial system. There is no legal precedent specifically for drones as of yet, although that might change in the near future. As drone technology proliferates, so too does the potential for abuse and for court cases.

But the United States courts are not absent of precedent that would come up in a privacy case involving drones. It’s is important to keep in mind that in many cases drone journalism is a form of aerial photography, albeit an unmanned form of aerial photography. Additionally, cases that consider whether the National Airspace System (NAS) is public or private are highly relevant.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Journalism Drone Development: aerial photo mosiacs, and what's the spatial resolution on this drone, anyway?

Above is an aerial mosaic -- a series of 11 photos taken from a small unmanned aerial vehicle (colloquially known as a drone) that have been stitched together in a mosaiking program.

That program, Microsoft Image Composite Editor, is normally used to stitch together a series of sweeping photos taken from the ground to make a single panoramic image. However, the algorithm used to find and match the edges of a series of sweeping photos of, say, the Grand Canyon, is the same algorithm needed to fit photos together to make a map or similar map-esque image from aerial photos.

So, what kind of drone journalism could you do with this kind of image? Aerial photographers have been able to capture a breathtaking, panoramic view of Moscow protests from drones. These drones offer a perspective that is especially helpful at documenting the scope or extent of protests, political rallies, construction projects, landmarks, geographic features, and natural and man-made disasters.

But what kind of data journalism can you do with these drones? That's to say, what kind of hard data can you obtain from these images to launch investigations? How about proving the existence of or extent of something, such as oil spills, wild fires, droughts, or lax construction codes following a disaster, with actual metrics?