Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Radical New Mission for Drones: Helping Journalists find Truth

Drones are mostly associated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan – where they continue to shoot missiles and drop bombs on the insurgency. Between 1,492 and 2,378 died from drone attacks in Pakistan between 2004 and May 24, 2011, according to theNew America Foundation, and the number of drone attacks have more than doubled under the Obama administration.

The drones present serious concerns for the Pakistanis about their own safety and sovereignty, and have sparked protests at the UK parliament.

The military-industrial complex and global politics have greatly advanced both the application and development of military drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as they’re called in military parlance. A large, jet-powered stealth drone played a majorrole in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Now there’s entire military expos dedicated solely to UAVs.

But armed conflict and espionage are not a drone’s raison d'être. Strictly speaking, a drone is simply an unmanned vehicle that guided remotely, or is self-guiding. And just as the advancement of drone technology has increased the military’s capabilities, those advancements have trickled down to the private commercial sector.

With a little know-how, a resourceful civilian – or journalist -- can order “off-the-shelf” components and make and fly a drone.

Hobbyists are Ahead of the Game

Communities of people who do just that can be found in online forums such as, founded by Wired’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson (who also founded 3D Robotics, which sells drone technology to hobbyists).

One drone hobbyist used his aircraft to stitch together a map of a 2.4 square-kilometer area (about 593 acres, or 0.92 miles) using aerial photos and software. He was able to collect the photos in one day, and combine them into a map within four days.

Using a drone and aerial photography software, a Polish hobbyist was able to stitch together this high-resolution map in less than a week and for relatively little cash.

The Polish UAV hobbyist, Krzysztof Bosak, wrote that UAV aerial photography, even from a hobbyist prototype, “is a blitz compared to a few months of delay from satellite or a few weeks of delay (typically) from full scale airplane mapping company.” Bosak also works for TriggerComposites, which sells UAV services for photomapping, environmental survey, search and rescue, research and publicity.

This kind of quick, inexpensive solution to mapping and aerial photography could just as easily be applied to journalism. For instance, mapping the devastation that recent tornadoes inflicted on Joplin, Mo., might yield some evidence about the safety of structures in that town. It would also indicate what part of towns were safest, and which didn’t stand a chance.

Old Craft, New Tech, and a Radical New Mission

When hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on southeatern Florida in 1992, Miami Herald reporters used damage reports from Dade county, combined with maps of the hurricane’s wind speeds, to demonstrate that newer houses were the least likely to emerge from the storm unharmed. Follow-up reporting yielded that newer structures were indeed insufficiently safe (some roofs were held on with nothing more than large staples), and local housing inspectors were so overwhelmed by the demands of urban sprawl that they couldn’t adequately do their jobs. The reporters earned a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

Reports on the damaged houses were hard to come by initially, and the investigation process was long and involved. The hurricane hit on August 24, and the Herald released its special report, “What Went Wrong,” on December 20. But it’s easy to imagine how an enterprising reporter, armed with a drone and mapping software, could map the damage over several weeks and come to similar conclusions.

Because a drone can be a platform for any number of sensors, a drone could just as easily measure the radioactivity near an imperiled nuclear facility (for instance, the Fukushima Daiichi plant post-earthquake), or take stock of contaminants and pollutants near an industrial plant.

Boser's "Pteryx" UAV in flight. From

Declining tech costs means the utility of a drone to an investigative journalist is dependent less on the monetary resources afforded to her or him, and dependent more on ingenuity. Journalists can look to the ways various regulatory bodies or other government agencies are using drone technology to conduct their work, and adapt those models for their own investigative needs. Collaborating with scientists and engineers can increase the reliability of data reporting and adds credibility to investigations.

Much can be accomplished with drone-guided reporting in the States, but some of the biggest journalistic achievements can come from the most dangerous places on earth.

For example, the Arab Spring uprising has resulted in been notoriously difficult to report on. More than 450 journalists have been attacked by mobs or government authorities since the uprising began, according to the Overseas Press Club of America. And 16 journalists have died so far in 2011, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One of the most recent, high-profile casualties were Getty combat photographer Chris Hondros and “Restrepo” director and producer Tim Hetherington. The two were killed while on assignment, reporting on the Libyan civil war.

There has been some measure of success in reporting this historic shift in Arab power, mostly because of protesters’ use of social media. Protestors and protest organizers will sometimes upload on the internet photos and videos of government abuses. Some are extremely graphic, showing the maimed and bloodied bodies of protestors, and it’s obvious that the documentarians put themselves in harm’s way in shooting the images.

If reporters are able to launch drones in the midst of an uprising, and capture with an “eye in the sky” oppression or crimes against humanity, potentially to a live, international television or internet audience, it would revolutionize the way events abroad are reported and realized.

Drones could provide additional reporting muscle during times of increased human rights abuses -- such as those during the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere. Photo of Egypt protestors courtesy of Amnesty International.

While the risks are much lower at home, drone-wielding journalists will still have to come to grips with media laws that they have always fought against, and some extra ones. For instance, these aircraft only meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations if they fly under 400 feet, and within “line-of-sight” of the operator. Additionally, placing a camera on any device that reaches places where humans normally can’t, and peeking on private citizens, is an obvious privacy law issue.

From a legal standpoint, the risks are obviously great. But there’s also potentially enormous rewards for the tech-savvy journalist with a drone.