Over August and September this year, I conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshops on the ethical, legal use of drones or UAVs in journalism. The workshop was heavily anchored to the ethics around the use of drones, the detailed regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) around UAVs flights, a practical, hands-on segment where all participants got to fly a DJI Phantom IV drone and finally, a discussion around imagery processing, quality and ethics, around content captured during flight.
A one-page description of the workshop can be downloaded here.
As a result of these workshops, I was also able to engage the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) in on-going conversations around regulating the use of drones in Sri Lanka particularly for non-commercial use, as well as making it easier for journalists and farmers to register more easily with the CAASL. More on this later.
Released in February 2016, CAASL’s second version of regulations covering the flight of drones and UAVs in Sri Lanka is available online, though not easily discoverable even on the CAASL site. It is comprehensive, well-drafted and isn’t overly restrictive in comparison to regulations from the US, UK and Australia for example. Conversations with the CAASL, still on-going, have been anchored to making these regulations available in Sinhala and Tamil, in a more accessible, reader and user-friendly formats, through short-form video and available at the point of sale in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, I have also been informed that a new version of the regulations is in the works, and will be released to the public domain soon.
The first drone journalism workshop was supported by Internews, and the result of conversations with renowned journalist Amantha Perera, who also wrote about the workshop. There were around 20 participants, from the pathbreaking One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship programme as well as from mainstream media.
The first workshop was also supported by Sam de Silva from Internews, who also went on to wrote about it. As he noted,
Kaushalye, a reporter for the Sinhala language newspaper Lankadeepa in Sri Lanka, had planned to purchase a drone to photograph weddings and other events. He had never heard about using drones for journalism until he attended a workshop in Mount Lavinia. Kaushalye’s interest was kindled – he said he found the rules and regulations and ethics components especially useful.
Some media outlets in Sri Lanka have already started using drones (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs) to provide aerial footage for their stories but there was no awareness or training for journalists about the regulations governing the flying of such craft, the ethics involved and the safety and security checks that need to be followed.
Some photos from the workshop, taken by Sam.
Given the incredible interest around the first workshop, I organized a second in September, supported by the ICT4Peace Foundation. As noted by me in the foreword to The Use of Unmanned Unarmed Aerial Vehicles for Peacekeeping, authored by Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meier and published by the ICT4Peace Foundation,
For the best of intentions, UUAVs can lead to the worst of outcomes if their use isn’t carefully contextualized, and their deployment plus operation sensitively managed. With the democratization of UUAVs, and add-on technologies, serious challenges like the relatively easy weaponisation of off-the-shelf UUAVs will grow, as well as the use of UUAVs by non-state actors and certain arms of government for surveillance, and of course, continuing military operations.
The Foundation’s interest in promoting the ethical, rights based use of drones in humanitarian and peacekeeping domains merged with my interest in support the use of UAVs in Sri Lanka for journalism. The second workshop was held for journalists, activists, those from civic media, and others using drones for commercial operations including aerial photography.
Importantly, the CAASL sent a representative to act as an observer in the second workshop, and in a short speech delivered mid-way, reiterated the CAASL’s interest in supporting the ethical use of drones in journalism, as well as efforts to promote the awareness of existing regulations. Editor of Maatram and journalist Selvaraja Rajasegar has some photos from the workshop.
The other advantage of the second workshop was that permission was sought and received from the Warden of S. Thomas’ College, adjacent to the workshop venue, to have the hands-on lessons on the cricket grounds in the school, allowing for easier Line of Sight (LOS) flying.
That’s a short video from footage shot during the flights when the participants took the controls, including a segment where I demonstrate the Phantom IV’s (slightly creepy) active tracking mode.
The second workshop also included developments in Sri Lanka since the first was held, most notably the proposed use around and advertisements for drones in agriculture, and amongst farmers in the country.
There is still a long way to go. As I was typing in this blogpost, a callous example of how not to use a drone for journalism surfaced from Colombo.
As award-winning journalist Dharisha Bastians noted (she also participated in the 2nd workshop),
Furthermore, the Sunday Times reported that,
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is urging operators of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) including drones, to register with the CAA, as the use of these instruments are fast gaining popularity in the country. CAA Director General (DG), H.M.C. Nimalsiri said, only around 50 UAV s are registered with them to date, while many more are believed to be in operation.
Only problem is that the CAASL to date has no way the public can register their drones. It is also unclear to what extent local authorities including for example the Police, Civil Defense Force and Army, especially in the North and East, are aware of the CAASL regulations.
But the interest from the CAASL in engaging with media, civic minded citizens around drone flights, the agrarian sector and other commercial operators is very positive. Given an enduring interest in the issues covered in the workshop, I intend to conduct more in the future.