Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Partnerships unlock the real potential of drones, especially in drone journalism.

Yesterday, Salon ran a piece on the proliferation of drones at research universities. As Jefferson Morley wrote, universities are at the are at the forefront of developing the unmanned aerial systems that will be monitoring crops, assessing damage, and doing a number of other tasks at home.

That may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been following drones in the past couple of weeks. Recently, Electronic Frontier Foundation published the list of public institutions and government agencies who had current or expired authorization to fly drones.

Some applicants were obscure. Herrington, Kansas -- a town of 2,526 souls -- applied for authorization to fly drones. But 25 of the 62 agencies were institutes of higher learning, and many were surprised at how few agencies had applied for authorization.

However, there's a buried lede in this story: universities aren't just developing drones, they're developing these drones in partnerships with other entities. This isn't happening in an ivory-tower vacuum.

Kansas State is teaming with the Kansas National Guard to develop UAS tech for disaster surveyal. Middle Tennesse State University are developing drones for precision agriculture, with drones provided by the Army. The Army also funded micro-drone research at Georgia Tech. "The role of the Pentagon in funding drone technology on U.S. campuses is visible everywhere," Morley wrote.

That seems to ring true overseas. The BBC is partnering with Southampton University to develop a drone for news gathering, as well. It's even having a public contest to design the drone's livery., too, is engaged in a partnership with both the University of Illinois and a Knight Foundation-funded community news website, All the development is done with two immediate goals: provide journalism students the enormous opportunity of using drones for their reporting and research, and also use the drones for community news coverage via With the community news organization, we already have several investigations we're going to assist with once our drones are operational.

Journalists haven't always been known as the cooperative type. The vocation seems to always have been centered around individuals, rather than groups. But there's important exceptions to the rule, and some of the most important investigations in recent times involved teams of journalists rather than lone wolves (there's numerous Pulitzer prizes given for team reporting).

For, part of the reason is regulatory. As a lone nonprofit, we can't apply for a certificate of authorization. we have to be affiliated with a public institution. And some of our developers and mentors are already part of a public institution, the University of Illinois.

But we collaborate for more than just that reason. We collaborate because other organizations have needs, and fulfilling those needs gives our own organization a mission and a direction for our development. It also gives us the opportunity to tap into the expertise of our partner organizations. In the end, we all walk away with more experience gained and more work done.

We're not designing our platforms necessarily for individuals. We're designing them with the idea in mind that a journalist will collect the data, but that journalist would work with experts in disaster management, environmental science,  hydrology, city planning, meteorology, and so on, to make sense of the data. Some of the UAS we have in mind might not even be deployable without a team.

It's no different with these other universities. When KSU wants to develop a drone, they need the help of those who are going to deploy it (the National Guard) to tell them the operational parameters, and teach them about the finer points disaster relief. You can't engineer without a mission, and partners can help you find a mission worth pursuing.

There was something else in this article that was particularly important: it pointed out that media coverage was skewed to the sensational issues of privacy and spying and generally neglected the wide-ranging civilian applications that UAS could provide.

That's not even beginning to mention the boon that drones could provide to the marketplace. It's estimated that the UAV market will be $94 billion over the next 10 years.

From the story:

For all the attention given to U.S. law enforcement’s interest in adopting drones, the biggest users turn out to be not police departments, but universities. We learned this last week, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation forced the Federal Aviation Administration to reveal that it had approved 25 universities to fly drones in U.S. airspace. Not that universities were waiting on the FAA to begin working in the field: Last fall, Kansas State University created a degree in unmanned aviation. So far, 30 undergraduates have signed up.

The spreading drone curriculum is, for better and worse, a sign of the coming normalization of drones in American life. Interviews with university officials revealed widespread excitement about the possibilities of unmanned aviation technology, which has the potential to transform fields like agriculture and disaster response. The U.S. military, however, is funding parts of this academic research, and so are leading defense contractors. Whether their intentions are as pure as the universities’ is an open question.