When someone asks whether something is “for real,” under most circumstances I usually take the question to mean not only “does the thing or phenomenon in question truly exist?” but “does it have any permanence?” If something is real in one instant but is gone or transformed into something unrecognizable in the next, the memory of it may be so brief and blurry that it hardly seems like it was real even if logically we knew it was. In the case of drone journalism, there definitely seems to be something going on that is significant enough to warrant its continued existence and evolution, but it is young enough that I am comfortable and unembarrassed to say that I don’t know for sure. We don’t know what will happen legally that may restrict the use of drones for such purposes in the near future. If the restrictions are strict and extensive enough, it may be the thing that kills the field before it ever gets a proper chance to mature. The achievements and mistakes that are made in the coming years are what will determine how the world views drone journalism and whether it will be allowed to become a significant contributor to the constant stream of news we are taking in.
Since there are flying robots that are relatively easy for the public to access, the chances of drone journalism sticking around are much higher than if the resources were less readily available. One thing that comes to mind is the change in filmmaking after affordable video cameras and software such as Final Cut Pro became available. With these tools, it became unnecessary to be a fully trained filmmaker in order to create films. Anyone with enough patience, drive, and talent could make a movie – it wouldn’t necessarily be any good, but it would still exist. You can trace the beginnings of this attitude and the rise of indie movies to when people started abandoning the major studios in favor of more control over their work. Certain filmmakers preferred to have more control and fewer resources to having to obey the commands of the studios even though they might have a much nicer resources. Having access to the tools means freedom.
Like any piece of technology, there is the opportunity for both good and evil here. Journalism at its best is all about discovering and exposing the truth, but what happens when that “ultimate truth” someone is seeking involves stalking someone and seeing them from a vantage point they would normally never even have access to? One journalist may use their flying robot to take amazing shots of erupting volcanoes. Another may use theirs to follow Jennifer Lawrence and deprive her of privacy in a whole new way – with a very capable eye in the sky.
As for project ideas, I have a bit of an obsession with abandoned buildings, and there are several in the area I’ve had my eye on for a while. People are technically not allowed inside them a lot of the time for safety reasons, but a drone might be able to get some incredible footage. One example is the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island. There is also Hart Island with its mass gravesite, but there is also a prison there so I’m pretty sure flying a drone over it would be 150% illegal. North Brother Island is fascinating – Typhoid Mary was sent to live there. There are a lot of options.