‘Back to the Future’ creators foresaw media drones of near-future
In Back to the Future: Part II, a camera drone hovers as the town’s bad guys are arrested, one of many prescient technology predictions in the 1989 movie.
The bulky drone in the movie, operated by USA TODAY, is equipped with cameras and antennas and bears little resemblance to the streamlined models operated by hobbyists today. “The classic cliché about any TV news or newspapers is, ‘Who’s on the scene first?’ ” says Bob Gale, who wrote the movie screenplay. “We knew about stringers. So we thought, OK, how crazy can we be here? What if we had the new stuff automated?” The movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, “is the one who deserves the credit for coming up with the idea. We’d all hang out and spitball stuff.”
News organizations have gone far beyond spitballing. The commercial use of drones is still prohibited unless companies receive exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration. In an effort to get the FAA to relax the rules, 16 media organizations interested in using drones for newsgathering — including The New York Times Co., the Associated Press and USA TODAY’s parent, Gannett — have partnered with Virginia Tech to test small drones for photos and videos and training journalists.
But with viral videos perhaps the quickest way to fan more clicks, new federal rules greenlighting commercial drones will surely drive other digital-savvy start-up media outlets to jump into the fray. Gale’s and Zemeckis’ branding of their drones with “USA TODAY” didn’t foresee the news industry disruption triggered by the Internet. “We were trying to make jokes,” Gale recalls. “But our view was that conglomerates would get bigger and bigger. And there might be only one newspaper in the whole world, and that would be USA TODAY. And there would be all these local editions.”
About 1,600 companies so far have received exemptions. “It is starting to happen, and it’s going to only expand,” Roberson says.
The FAA plans to issue its rules allowing the commercial use of small, unmanned drones in the first half of next year. A key restriction that the news industry would like to repeal is the requirement that drones must be piloted by an FAA-certified pilot. The coalition at Virginia Tech is “establishing a training protocol” so that trained journalists can fly them, Roberson says.
Other issues — such as the proximity of drones to people and other aircraft; how to ensure drones avoid each other in crowded airspace; the steps required to test drone pilots — are still being worked out.
When Back to the Future creators envisioned news drones, they were simply riffing on the ubiquity of paparazzi, says John Bell, whose drone sketches for the movie were inspired by the “probe droids” in Star Wars. “What would a futuristic paparazzi look like? And that’s what I went from.”
The privacy issues that similarly surround paparazzi also will have to be addressed in the new drone rules. President Obama has directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to work with media companies, privacy advocates and other interested parties to devise a set of privacy best practices. “That could establish a code of conduct and potential legal liability,” Roberson says. “If you fail to comply to those best practices, someone can potentially sue you.”
When the reports of drone use by news organizations first began to surface, Gale and Zemeckis gave each other a virtual high-five. “Either Bob or I emailed the other and said, ‘OK, chalk up another one for us,'” Gale says.