Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Drone Journalism and Remote Sensing

Posted on | June 16, 2014 | No Comments

After 9/11, I developed and often taught a course at New York University called Remote Sensing and Surveillance. It was designed to study the promises and perils of technologies such as aerial photography, closed circuit cameras, multiple orbit-earth satellites, and a number of IP-based web surveillance systems. The course combined a social science approach with an in-depth look at the electromagnetic radiation utilized by a variety of cameras and other sensors. Concerns for individual privacy and national sovereignty were addressed, especially after the passage of the Patriot Act.

The attention to a relatively new endeavor called drone journalism had me thinking about the class lately. The use of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) has been touted as supportive in the future of a variety of investigative reporting needs. These drones collect audio, photographs, video, and other types of data that can be useful for covering news-worthy conditions and events related to criminal forensics, disaster management, environmental damage, adverse weather, traffic reporting and sports coverage. Drone journalism received attention recently for its aerial drone “coverage” of the riots in the Istanbul and the political unrest in the Ukraine.

Legal action by the major media organizations to protect drone journalism is especially noteworthy. By referring to the First Amendment, the New York Times and other media organizations are calling drone surveillance for news purposes a constitutionally protected right. A fine imposed on Raphael Pirker by the FAA Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for reckless flying of a drone has brought the issue to Federal court. If given constitutional protection, drone journalism is likely to become a daily practice in the media business.

In light of this development I thought it might be useful to revisit the objectives and content of the class and to see what it has to offer in terms of insights and/or criticism of this emerging aspect of the news business.

Tech-wise, the course taught the fundamentals of electromagnetic radiation and how these energies interact with Earth materials such as vegetation, water, soil and rock, as well as humans and human artifacts. It also covered how the energy reflected or emitted from these materials is detected and recorded using a variety of remote sensing instruments such as digital cameras, multispectral scanners, hyperspectral instruments, and RADAR, etc. The course also touched on the principles of visual photo-interpretation, although this is a particularly complex topic that has both denotative and connotative considerations.


Satellites provide a useful historical reference that can indicate potential directions for drone journalism. As I point out in Seeing from Space: Cold War Origins to Google Earth, satellites were initially used for spying and military photo reconnaissance. Improvements in visual acuity have increased to the point where they have recently developed the capacity to detect sub-pixel targets less than 9% the size of one single pixel. They can also take advantage of infra-red and other electromagnetic wavelengths to see at night and under other adverse conditions.

Many news viewers are becoming more environmentally and scientifically literate in the types of news drones can provide. Climate change and attention to other types of pollution will be a fruitful area for drone journalism. Satellites equipped for remote sensing have been used to monitor environmental conditions such as forest resources, fish migration, oil reserves, soil composition, radiation contamination, river flows, food harvests, as well as to forecast disasters due to natural causes such as flooding or droughts. Some of this will be picked up by drone facilitated aerial photography.

It is no secret that drone technology has developed precise methods for defining locations. With the introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites were used in warfare for guiding missiles to their targets, routing convoys through unknown territories, and locating lost soldiers and equipment. GPS, combined with geo-location technologies such as cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, provide remarkable accuracy in identifying the positions of objects, places and people and are now used in a wide variety of commercial activities, including mobile phone apps. For news operations, geo-location can help recover classified advertising and other revenue sources by providing location specific news items, weather reports and reviews of nearby establishments.

While drone technology conjures up thoughts of paparazzi buzzing stars and and peeps looking into bedroom windows, it could also be used for more socially responsive journalism. Among other choices, it can be a deterrent for environmentally dangerous companies and crowd abusing police teams. I’m not advocating drone technology for journalism at this time as I think it has a number of safety and privacy issues to resolve. However, as the decision is not up to me, I thought the least I could do is outline some of the issues from my perspective.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society at the State University of New York (SUNY) in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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