Matt Waite and the World’s First Journalism Drone Lab

Matt Waite

In November of 2011, Matt Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, founded the first journalism drone lab in the world. It was also the first journalism drone lab in the world to get a cease and desist letter from the FAA.

The story that drew the FAA’s ire was an October 2012 report Waite and his students put together on that year’s drought, one of the worst in Nebraska’s history — meteorologically worse than the Dust Bowl. (Pictured above; read his blog about that story here.) Waite and his student crew flew in a rural area, nowhere near airports or populated public land, but because Waite was an employee of a public institution, the FAA ordered them to cease unless Waite obtained a certificate of authorization.

Waite first realized the significance that the aerial perspective held for photojournalists in the mid-2000s, when drone was still a dirty word. He was reporting on widespread devastation in the Florida wetlands, and simply looked up: “Wow,” he thought, “If you could get up there, there’s every hurricane, flood, tornado, wildfire, biblical event — an opportunity to radically improve the quality and accuracy of our disaster assessment and recovery.”

After seeing a fully autonomous aerial mapping platform in action for the first time, he looked deeper into the technology and found the things that Chris Anderson and other thought leaders were saying resonated with him. In November of 2011, he decided to found the drone lab.

Waite is now on a lecture tour. He’s scheduled to speak at universities across the country, including San Diego State (March 25) and the University of Texas (April 4). He’ll address the state of FAA regulations and UAV law, and how it could impact journalists down the road.

“Many states are considering laws that restrict drones,” he said, “and some of those laws are hostile to the idea of the free press using drones to do journalism.”

Waite believes almost all news organizations will soon use UAVs, and he’s optimistic that the FAA will be smart enough to make any eventual regulations content-neutral, so they don’t invite First Amendment fights.

“Ten years from now, we’ll be bored with it,” he shrugged. “The same way we look at the first camera phones now.”

To learn more about Matt Waite and the University of Nebraska Journalism Drone Lab, click here.

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