I had the pleasure of speaking with Nicolas Goller, a computer science student at the University of Utah, about drones for the school’s site, Drones and Society. Below is an excerpt of that interview. Read the whole thing here.
Nicolas Goller: Hello, please introduce yourself!
Sally French: I work professionally full-time for a newspaper. Actually before I got that job, I had my own drone blog. I had this interest of being a photojournalist and using drones to take photos. So I sort of started thinking that since the regulations are really unclear, I could establish myself as a thought leader in drones and journalism. This is why I started the blog The Drone Girl.
Goller: So you started it primarily because of the ambiguity with the current regulations?
French: Yeah, a lot is still unknown. So much is ambiguous, so I figured that by having this drone blog, I could explore these things and show on one hand how drones can be used for good. Often, people think of drones as something that is strictly used for war. I think a lot of people ignore the consumer side of drones. They fail to distinguish that on one side of the world drones are killing people and on the other side drones are helping find lost hikers! It should not have a negative connotation one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to explore the privacy and safety issues as well.
Goller: What of surveillance and privacy?
French: Just as large telephoto lenses challenged the privacy and surveillance regulations when they were becoming more widespread, so do drones challenge the current regulations. I think it needs to be approached the same way that people have always approached handling the same photojournalism laws. Yes you can stand on a sidewalk, but there is that ethical concern. People have the implied right to privacy. I really think that people need to take a step back and view a drone as another tool and address the laws the same way they would with any other tool – this one just happens to be in the air.
Goller: So drones are basically just heightening the current issues by approaching from a different angle?
French: Yeah, exactly. People were so scared when telephoto lenses came out. Now your mom probably has one and she probably bought it at Target. A lot of people get really scared that drones might be spying on them. Going back to what this blog is for, the drones that people have are the size of a small child. You can’t miss them!
Goller: What do you think of the FAA and the current situation with regulation in the national airspace?
French: With the Parker case, the FAA said they would fine him $10,000. So he fought them in the court and won, but just recently the ruling was overturned. So it’s very unclear. He doesn’t have to pay. Then he does have to pay. What of my blog? Is it commercial? I do think there has to be some amount of regulation. There has to be a happy medium between the people who want to ban drones completely and those on the other end who don’t want any regulations.
Goller: Do the benefits of domestic drones outweigh their potential problems?
French: Yeah, but at the same time I don’t want to say we should be carefree. There definitely are problems. I think a drone crashed into a geyser in Yellowstone. There are lots of details still to be worked out. But there are many benefits to using drones. I spoke to this one man who is trying to track whale DNA. This is a big challenge; you can’t simply walk up to a whale and pull off some hair. The way they do this is by gathering snot. They use drones to fly over the blowhole and collect snot! The possibilities are endless.
Goller: Research, Journalism. What else?
French: Yeah, search and rescue too! It’s dangerous to be on a search and rescue team. A man with a drone offered his services and found the missing people in ten minutes while the rescue team had taken two days with no success. There is also this great company called Matternet and they deliver medicine to really remote places. If someone is sick and they don’t have proper roads or there is some sort of barrier obstructing the way, you can fly to them with a drone and deliver the medicine.
Goller: Do you plan to keep up with the blog?
French: Yeah. I have my full time job and I’m really trying to keep up with the blog. It’s a lot. But there is one thing I’m really passionate about that I don’t think I have explored enough on my blog. As you know the title is The Drone Girl. There is an issue with women in tech. There aren’t enough and there is a great deal of prejudice. I’ve even experienced that myself with drones. People say “you are a girl, why are you flying a drone?”
French: Yeah. It’s not like flying a drone requires any special quality that only men have. There aren’t really many women in drones. My goal for the blog is kind of to bring out this issue. I plan to interview other women in drones and celebrate their accomplishments.