MEDIA organisations have begun ramping up their use of drones, but privacy advocates warn of gross invasions in an age where virtually anyone can now operate an eye in the sky.
Retail chains such as Harvey Norman sell remote-controlled aerial devices equipped with cameras for as little as $350, as they move increasingly from a covert surveillance tool to the mainstream.
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Drones and the media: A new perspective
Small drones fitted with cameras are now widely available; and given their ability to fly low and unnoticed, they offer a valuable perspective for news reporting and events.
More advanced models, costing more than $10,000 and capable of carrying heavy-duty cameras, can easily be bought online.
But while Australia's major TV networks are already putting the new technology to the test for the screen, there are fears the devices could also be used to replace the paparazzi's prying long lenses.
''Kate Middleton and many other people besides can rest assured that their bare breasts are fair game, anywhere, any time,'' the Australian Privacy Foundation's Roger Clarke warned, in a week when snaps of the pregnant Duchess in a bikini made international headlines.
Fox Sports began using drones for aerial coverage of Twenty20 Big Bash cricket last year, while the Nine Network has conducted similar experiments at Perth's WACA ground.
Seven's Sunday Night program spent two weeks in the lead-up to Australia Day filming with a drone around the country. On Sunday night the program aired a story about rusting supertankers in Bangladesh that was partly shot using a drone.
Sunday Night executive producer Mark Llewellyn said most TV networks were looking at drones as replacements for expensive and bulky helicopters.
He said increasingly networks would look to obtain drone certification in-house as opposed to hiring third-party firms as they could more easily control the quality of the pictures.
''There are so many things that you can do [with drones] if you plan them properly,'' he said. ''If you want to chase a car or go at speed towards somebody on a ski slope or climb into what was previously a very difficult, inhospitable location you could do all of that.''
Asked whether he would sanction sending a drone to cover a high-profile celebrity wedding, Llewellyn said that ''if it was a celebrity who was high profile in the public eye and was behaving like a complete prat and there was some way of drawing a legitimate reason for doing it maybe you'd consider it''.
The paparazzi have used drones as far back as 2010 to stalk Paris Hilton around the French Riviera and Australian snappers are reportedly not far behind.
Last year a New South Wales resident filed a complaint after spotting a drone hovering outside their bedroom window, Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said.
Australian media organisations conducting journalism with drones and individuals flying them around the street are not covered by the Privacy Act. Pilgrim believes this and the "potentially intrusive nature of the technology" mean a public debate about the use of drones is needed.
Denied access to the Christmas Island immigration detention centre in 2011, Nine's 60 Minutes controversially flew a drone over the facility; it crashed into the sea after obtaining only mediocre footage.
ABC head of policy Alan Sunderland said drones had ''enormous potential as a tool for modern reporting'' but there were a number of regulatory and ethical issues to work through.
Veteran ABC journalist Mark Corcoran is on study leave at UTS researching media applications of drones on behalf of the broadcaster. He said the technology was evolving and proliferating too fast for CASA to keep up.
"The day is fast approaching where the small personal drone will be an obligatory part of the tool box for journalists, photographers and bloggers," he said.
Media organisations can currently commission work from 30 certified Australian drone operators but Fairfax understands a number of TV and print media organisations have recently contacted the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) about obtaining certification to fly drones in-house.
Hobbyist use of drones is unregulated but commercial operators must obtain certification from CASA, which imposes strict rules on where and when drones can fly including maintaining strict distances away from people and not flying above 400 feet.
David Vaile of the UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre warns of "[Rupert] Murdoch's News of the World culture" fuelling invasive drone reporting; indeed, Murdoch's now defunct iPad publication, The Daily, was one of the first media organisations to make regular use of drones in 2011 when it shot videos of flood damage in North Dakota and Mississipi.
Hai Tran, founder and chief pilot at Coptercam, a CASA-certified aerial drone photography business, has shot cricket footage for Fox Sports and will this week cover the NRL using a $15,000 drone capable of capturing full HD footage with a 10x optical zoom.
Tran has also been booked to cover the A-League, Rugby Union, and Rip Curl Pro events. He says he has also done work for the Seven and Ten networks while a year ago he shot footage of tornado damage for News Limited's PerthNow.
A commercial TV source said his network had tested drones but the regulations that ban flying close to people limited their effectiveness.
"The camera and transmission gear has to be very light, so the quality is not as strong as 'regular' television cameras," he said.
"Again, because of weight, the lenses aren't very stabilised so the pictures are very shaky and they don't like wind or rain and you can't fly them over water."
But Fox Sports head of innovation Todd Procter said the relatively noiseless drones "offer unique views of play that only flying craft can obtain".
CASA admits it has struggled to keep up as technology has advanced to the point where highly capable autonomous drones can be bought online for relatively low cost. This has led to a rise in uncertified commercial drone operators who are prepared to risk fines because of lax enforcement.
CASA has begun overhauling the rules around drones and has proposed for instance that the craft be regulated by weight so that those flying small drones are exempt from regulations. CASA director John McCormick told the ABC last October that "there's no point us writing a regulation that we can't enforce, that's just bad law".