Reporters looking to get close to a crime scene, take video footage of a raging wildfire, or chart the changes in an ecosystem may soon turn to drones, the little flying helicopters often associated with the military.
In fact, the emergence of drone journalism is expected to become such a mainstay of the media industry in the next few years that journalism students at the University of Missouri Journalism School, in Columbia, Mo., are now taking courses how to use drones to report stories.
"We have a class here of journalism students who are learning to fly J-bots, for journalism robots, or drones," said William Allen, a professor of journalism who pioneered the course.
"So they learn to fly them, and also do what reporters do: brainstorm ideas, go out and do reporting, do drone based photography and video. We're trying to see if this is going to be useful for journalism," he said.
The university course emerged from a growing interest in the variety of ways civilians can use drones, including farmers who want drones to spray pesticides or monitor crops and livestock on sprawling acres of land; cops who want to use drones to help search for suspects or missing chidlren; and energy companies who want to keep watch over oil or gas pipelines.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the future use of drones in America, weighing their possible commercial usefulness against privacy concerns. They are expected to lift the current ban on drone use in populated areas by 2015, and are exploring whether to create new laws by then to govern their use.
"In 2015, when the FAA is set to begin to relax its prohbition on use and integrate civilian use of drones, then I would think the first folks in the door would be media because there's such an obvious use," said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who testified at the Senate hearing.
The University of Missouri course, operating under current FAA regulations, can only use their drone in rural areas, and so has focused on conservation and agriculture stories, Allen said.
But the leaders of the drone journalism movement envision a time when news organizations replace costly helicopters and pilots with cheap drones to get closer to breaking news or weather stories, along with using them to uncover investigative pieces they may normally not see.
"The other aspect is investigative, the idea is you put a drone up in the air and look around. Maybe you'll find things, who knows what yet," Allen said. "We need to explore that and see. Many journalists can't afford to rent a helicopter and fly around."
A group of Pakistani journalists who visited Allen's course noted that they would want to use drones to act as first responders to terrorist bomb explosions in Pakistan, rather than risk sending reporters there only to have a second bomb go off moments later.