A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist told San Diego State University students Tuesday that inexpensive drone technology can help gather news about major disasters and long-term environmental change, but also pose new legal and ethical challenges.

Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said drones with cameras could be used to cover droughts, wildfires, tornado damage, floods and crop damage, as well as long-term environmental stories, faster and far less expensively than by using helicopters or satellites.

Professor Matt Waite demonstrates a camera-carrying done in the Aztec Student Union.

“If we can see this from the sky, we can know what’s going on,” said Waite, who described using a camera-equipped drone to capture video of the Nebraska drought in 2012.

Waite spoke to students and faculty in theater of the new Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union, and demonstrated a small drone that carried a camera by producing a video of the audience.

He described drone journalism as “the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to gather photos, video or data for news.”

While advocating use of the technology, he noted that “the word drone is now utterly meaningless” because it refers to both a $30 toy as well as the military’s $130 million Northrup Grumman Global Hawk.

Waite said there are problems with using drones because the Federal Aviation Administration typically restricts their use to hobbyists and the military. Commercial entities, including news organizations, require a permit in most cases, he said, adding that “The FAA does not want people flying these things commercially.”

In addition to the FAA, a number of state legislatures have passed laws restricting the use of camera-equipped drones. At issue, Waite said, is the tension between privacy rights and a new technology that can invade private spaces with ease.

“Drone journalism…is going to happen. The question is how do we do it in a safe, reasonable, legal and humane fashion,” he said, predicting that in 10 years drone journalism will be widely accepted.

Waite won a Pulitizer Prize while at the St. Petersburg Times, where he developed PolitiFact, a website that fact checks what politicians say.

His talk is the first in the Center for Science and Media’s 2014 Colloquium Speaker Series.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.