NEW YORK — The best way to film the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, the Philippines, said Lewis Whyld, a British photographer, was from the air.
But Whyld did not want to beg for a ride on a military helicopter, taking the space of much-needed aid. So he launched a drone. In addition to providing shots that showed the scale of the damage, broadcast by CNN recently, his drone discovered two bodies that were later recovered, he said.
“The newspaper was for still images,” said Whyld, who builds his own drones, “but the Internet is for this.”
Whyld and CNN are not alone in exploring the potential of drones. The Associated Press and News Corp. have used them to show the scale of large disasters. Sophisticated nature documentaries use them to get intimate shots of wildlife. News Corp. uses drones to film sporting events in Australia. Paparazzi use them to chase celebrities in Europe.
Drones, or unstaffed aerial systems, as many of their handlers prefer to call them, fly without pilots. They were largely developed for, and remain associated with, the military. But they are increasingly being used for civilian purposes.
The machines have proved most valuable in providing film footage or photography of things that are difficult to reach, like wildlife and geographic formations. In the future, they may include sensors that can help with environmental coverage, for instance, by providing air quality readings.
“What drones give you is anywhere, anytime access to the sky,” said Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired magazine who runs a drone company. “That perspective is something a journalist just wouldn’t have unless he waited for officials, or hired a plane.”
This fall, the BBC launched an 18-inch, six-rotor unstaffed machine into the sky to report on a high-speed train being planned to travel from London to Manchester. It would cut through and, some argue, despoil some of the most pristine rural land in England.
“The idea was we needed to get above to give our viewers the full scope of the problem,” said Tom Hannen, who operates the program.
Whyld is exploring long-range drones, which can fly 10 or 20 miles from the handler.
“I’m also thinking about detection devices for chemical weapons, so you could fly into Syria,” he said. “You can do journalism that wasn’t previously possible.”
In Britain, extensive testing and several thousand dollars are required for permission to fly, Whyld said. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration allows only drone makers and public entities like law enforcement agencies to test the aircraft. The agency will begin wider testing, which should lead to rules for other purposes, such as journalism.
Journalism programs, including those at the University of Missouri, the University of Nebraska, and Columbia University, have started drone journalism courses. Columbia does not teach hands-on skills, but students at Missouri have used drones over the Missouri River for a report about hydraulic fracturing and over the prairie for a story about controlled burns. But in August, the FAA ordered journalism schools to stop flights unless they got permission from the agency.
The aircraft are often heavy, powerful machines. In recent incidents they crashed into skyscrapers in New York and into a bull-running event in Virginia.
Another concern is that drones, which can sneak into situations not accessible to a regular photographer, will be used to invade privacy. In August, a drone stormed the private wedding in Switzerland of the singer Tina Turner.
But Nabiha Syed, a First Amendment lawyer who works under contract for The New York Times, said it is not likely that drones start an era when cameras will hover outside Alec Baldwin’s window.
“The idea of privacy is not a new one,” Syed said. “We have grappled with new technologies, like cellphones with cameras, before. We have a thicket of privacy law already and don’t need new laws at this stage.”