Droning on

As the use and abuse of drones in Sri Lanka makes headlines, it’s worth reflecting for a moment some trends around their use in journalism. Maligned and feared, drones are the latest technology to be used by mainstream media in the country, especially by television stations. The very name is often problematic – chiefly popularised by offensive, kinetic uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in theatres of war like Yemen and Pakistan, mostly by the Americans under former Presidents Bush and Obama. Drones were used for aerial surveillance in Sri Lanka as well, which makes their use and operation in the North particularly sensitive amongst communities who continue to be traumatised by what they endured in 2009, leave aside the military establishment’s fear of this equipment in the hands of civilians. It is also this fear that also drives the pushback against the wider use and adoption of smaller, cheaper drones for recreational use and in the service of journalism.

A high-end consumer drone can be picked up at Liberty Plaza today for under two lakhs. At this price point and given ideal conditions, a drone is capable of around half an hour of flight on a full charge, within a radius of two to four kilometres and easily going up to a ceiling of around five hundred meters – possibly higher. Models in this range come with 4K cameras, capable of extremely high resolution aerial photography as well as video far better than what even HD screens can display. Some models come with more advanced features that for example have the locations of airports around Sri Lanka hardcoded into their firmware, which makes it impossible to take off or operate the drone in close proximity to active airspace, thereby drastically reducing the risk of mid-air collisions with commercial aircraft. Others have an automatic return to home feature, which calculates the remaining battery charge, and if low, overrides a user’s enthusiasm and returns to where it took off from before it literally falls down from the sky. Some, from the company DJI, even have automatic collision detection when flying in certain modes. Smaller drones, which are cheaper, often lack these advanced features.

I have flown, taught the use of and explored the ethics around content generated from drones for a number of years, within and outside Sri Lanka. I’ve looked at their use beyond war and offensive, weaponised use cases. Sales of consumer drones have soared over the past few years, making it a multi-billion-dollar global industry with a steep growth curve that shows no signs of slowing down. Two companies – Parrot and DJI – command this market, but in Sri Lanka, we also make our own drones. The University of Moratuwa’s Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering tested Ravan, a medium sized drone in 2014 and its UAV Research Laboratory, opened the same year, has gone on to produce Ceyhawk, a more advanced drone capable of greater endurance and automation.

The heightened interest in drones comes from their use for recreational purposes – filming holiday and tourist destinations, weddings or gala events – to journalism, where drones have been used to cover political party rallies, large scale natural disasters, man-made disasters and environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, what’s captured headlines of late have been the unethical or illegal use of drones – around the exhumation of graves, crashing into stupas, or flying over crowds with scant regard for public safety. A press release by the Government Information Department earlier this month on the use of drones in journalism was met with a flurry of confusion. Some media said ‘new’ regulations on the use of drones imposed by the current government curtailed the freedom of expression. Other media claimed that the confiscation of drones by private television stations was politically motivated. The confusion is understandable in part due to the censorious, violent context for media and the freedom of expression for a decade. Not being able to fly a drone as media see fit is seen as an affront to media freedom. However, many journalists and the majority of drone pilots in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of regulations, first issued by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka in August 2015 and revised every year since, that govern the use of drones in Sri Lanka. The most recent regulations, released early January this year, make the use of a drone not unlike driving a car. The equipment has to be registered and insured. The pilot has to be registered and have a valid license. Before any flight in an open area, local Police need to be informed. What last year was a requirement to get clearance from the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (OCDS) is no longer the case. In many ways, the regulations make it easier to own and fly a drone. But in other ways, this being Sri Lanka, serious challenges persist.

For starters, there is no easy way to register a drone. The CAASL’s systems are grossly antiquated, and though it is now a requirement to register a drone and have a valid license before flying one, the CAASL itself doesn’t know of any way to make this process streamlined or easier for the general public. The resulting frustration will invariably result in drone flight that contravenes regulations, even by those who are interested in lawful flight. Further, insurance companies have no clear guidance on how to insure drones. There are four classes of drones as per the new regulations, but insurance companies have yet to formulate valuation guidelines in order to insure equipment presented to them, ranging from toys incapable of flight outside a home garden, to more capable machines that pose a far greater risk to property and persons. It is unclear whether Police are aware of the new CAASL regulations, which makes anyone flying or carrying around one – even with proper documentation which they may not comprehend or recognise the validity of – a terrorism-related suspect, fit for arrest, interrogation or harassment. The CAASL hasn’t made the regulations available in Sinhala or Tamil. The regulations in English are verbose, technical and hard to grasp. Unlike in the UK, US, Australia and other countries, there are no short guides in print or on the web, using infographics, cartoons and videos, to help new consumers and pilots grasp the essentials around regulations in order to fly safely.

Moves by the Media Ministry, the Government Information Department and the CAASL to promote awareness around regulations, and eventually also train and certify drone pilots, are welcome developments and need to be fast-tracked. In parallel, a conversation around the ethical use of this equipment is vital. Journalists must realise that existing guidelines on ethics are deeply applicable to the use of drones. The right to privacy is explicitly referenced in the CAASL regulations, and beyond this, common-sense guidelines also matter. Akin to not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, flying a drone should only be undertaken with the greatest care to not do harm to whatever and whoever underneath.

To their credit, the CAASL has repeatedly stressed their interest in promoting the use of drones in Sri Lanka, especially for journalism, noting that other sections of government, no doubt from the security sector, are more keen to ground them. This is an opportunity for journalism. Living conditions in littoral areas, desertification, deforestation, land use, drought coverage, post-disaster needs assessment, covering disasters, urban search and rescue, disaster risk reduction programmes, risk mapping, urban poverty, housing, riparian conditions, inland water resources and risks (around old bunds and dams for example), precision agriculture, examining the costs of development and its impact on the surrounding environment and wildlife, anti-poaching, monitoring of large scale farming, sand mining, tourism development and its impact on local resources and livelihoods. There is so much a drone can be used to report on that brings fresh perspectives and insights. Done right and well, these amazing flying machines can help us see Sri Lanka through new frames, and place on record developments, questions, concerns, challenges as well as opportunities that where hitherto marginal, expensive to generate or inconvenient to produce.

That’s just good journalism.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 29 January 2017.

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