Friday, August 17, 2012

Innovations, the future, and the history of drone journalism: Q&A

Recently I was asked by a Brazilian Journalist, Nina Gazire of the art and design magazine seLeCT, about where drone journalism came from, where it exists now, and where it might be going in the future. Below are the answers I sent. A lot of progress with developing the drones has been made since this email, but everything else is still very relevant to the subject of drone journalism.

 1.    When did you begin to practice Drone Journalism? How did you get in touch with it?

I first began researching drone journalism in May, 2011, as a graduate student of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was finishing my master’s degree in journalism and looking for something to do purely for fun, so I was looking into getting back into radio controlled aircraft as a hobby. I realized that the technology had advanced incredibly in the past 10 years, and this hobby had become something very different.

People were now hacking these “toys,” equipping them with microcontrollers to fly them autonomously as drones. Additionally, people were using these home-built drones as platforms for cameras and collecting some incredible aerial photography and even making accurate photomaps.

I had been practicing data journalism at the University, and I was part of a team of journalists who collected and analyzed the crime data about the University community. I also was investigating coal power plant pollution and lead levels in Chicago as part of my master’s project, and that had a data journalism component. I knew when I saw these hobbyists making accurate maps from aerial photos that there was a real potential for this in data journalism.

We could gather so much information from these robots and increase public knowledge. Perhaps best of all, it wouldn’t cost a fortune, and many independent journalists could pick up these skills. When I realized the potential for all of this, I became obsessed with the topic.

2. Until now Drone Journalism has been a very experimental practice linked to a lot of DIY initiative and even Hacktivism like the ones used by the Occupy movements and so on? Why did you decide to create the Professional Society of Drone Journalists? What is its main objective?

The real development has been taking place in the basements of hobbyists and hackers. Take for example Jordi Muñoz, a 25-year old programmer who was one of the first people to program the open-source Arduino platform to make a model helicopter fly autonomously. He made his first drone at home in 2007, and now he’s now the executive director of one of the leading suppliers of microcontrollers for the DIY Drones movement.

Additionally, activists have really been at the forefront of deploying drones to monitor protests. They’ve been used to record protests in Russia, Poland, Estonia, in the United States and elsewhere. This is all before major news organizations even began thinking about the technology. It’s about as grass roots as you can get.

I created the Professional Society of Drone Journalists because I realized that there was risk as well as reward in using these autonomous robots. We could gain so much information, but we could also disrupt innocent lives and potentially hurt people. Some of these drones can be rather heavy, and they certainly would cause damage if a pilot somehow lost control hundreds of meters in the air.

Considering what was at stake, I thought it necessary to build an ethical foundation for how these drones should be operated. But that foundation needed authority, and it needed to be built by people experimenting with or researching drone journalism. I thought that if we educated journalists on these boundaries, we could potentially avoid problems that would put this new field at risk.

The other aspect of the PSDJ is educational. I’m hoping that we can be a source to show journalists how they can build their own drones, just as the hobbyists and hackers have done. I’m working with a PhD student at the University of Illinois to build these drones, and we try to publish as much information as possible on and on

3. I’ve tried to map an origin to the Drone Journalism practice, but It seems to be a very recent phenomenon? When was it used for the first time? Is there a history for the Drone Journalism?

Indeed, it is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I’m not sure there is a consensus about when it actually started. Part of that involves what the definition of what drone journalism is, which is still being figured out.

It might be traced back to Vienna, Austria in 2004. System 77 Civil Counter-Reconnaissance, a consortium of activists concerned with the level of government surveillance, sought to turn the tables on the government by launching their own drone to monitor law enforcement. I’m unaware if they actually deployed any working drone, but they did make a fairly elaborate display to communicate their plans to the public.

Much of the big advances in drone journalism, however, came in 2011. In April and May of that year, the News Corp website The Daily contracted drones to survey damage from the deadly outbreak of tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and flooding along the Mississippi river. Then the footage of the protest in Poland came out in November, and by the end of the year Occupy protesters were experimenting with a drone of their own.

Around the same time, a hobbyist in Texas was flying his personal drone for recreation when he took aerial photos of a meat packing plant that was illegally dumping animal fluids into a creek. He wasn’t trying to be a drone journalist and tried to remain anonymous, but he has the honor of the first civilian to expose illegal activity using a drone.

More recently, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) contracted a drone, a multi-rotor drone, for aerial photography. Also, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently announced they were developing a fixed-wing news drone in conjunction with a UK university. The technology is continuing to improve, and journalists are learning these skills right now. But I think that the best journalism involving drones at this point has not even been done by professional journalists.

4. Until now we have read a lot about Drone Journalism, but everything is related to the possibilities of photographing or recording images that usually are impossible for journalists to do. I’m mean like the images done on the Occupy protests, Moscow Elections, and so on. But is there a future with other possibilities for the Drone Journalism, like remote sensing data, sound recoding or data transmission?

Absolutely. As a researcher and drone journalism developer, I’m not actually interested in the basic things you can accomplish with a drone. That technology already exists, and it has existed for some time.

What really interests me is the drone as a tool to gather intelligence. Journalists could, for instance, map the damage done to homes after a hurricane and learn about the safety of the construction there or whether the building codes were followed. We could monitor wetlands and sensitive ecosystems and know when and how they’ve been damaged, and who has damaged them. We can collect data over time and understand how the landscape, the people, and the environment have changed, and learn about the factors that have contributed to those changes. The best inspiration for how to use these drones for journalism and data journalism actually comes from the universities who are using them to help conduct a rich variety of research.

For technology, the most optimistic time always is in the future. Ten years from now, drones are going to have better sensors, they’re going to be more mobile, and they are even going to have artificial intelligence. The complexity and importance of the tasks we assign drones will increase as the capabilities increase.

5. I’ve read that the Drone Journalism is attracting some startups entrepreneurs that are thinking in turning this practice into business. What are the economical potentials of Drone Journalism as a business? Do you think that in the near future there will be press agencies specialized in it?

Drones will be a multi-billion dollar industry in the coming years. Yet I don’t think anyone can really say at this point what the market is for drone journalism. That’s partly because the economy for journalism itself is in turmoil, at least in the United States.

Television stations will look to drones to replace news helicopters, and sports channels will use drones to enhance sports coverage. However, traditional newspapers are cutting reporters and slashing budgets all around. I think the most hope for drone journalism lies in nonprofit newsrooms and with independent journalists; they have the most freedom and incentive to take risks and innovate.

I see drone journalism as a skill for future journalists, not necessarily a trade. Many organizations would rather contract a commercial drone service than spend the money to train a journalist and service the drones. But I think that journalists who have those skills, who can use drones more than a platform for photography, who know how to service drones and how to use them to collect vital information, will be in demand in newsrooms around the world. Journalists still need to know how to tell a story. Drones simply allow the journalist to find the story.

6. Is there any kind of Drone that is more recommended or used in the Journalism Practice?

There are two dominant types of drones that are being made by hobbyists and drone developers: fixed-wing drones, which most closely resemble common airplanes, and multi-rotor craft, which use one or more blade to lift the craft. Fixed wing drones seem to be best suited for long flight times and can cover long distances. They seem to be the ideal platforms to generate photographic maps of large plots of land. Multi-rotor craft come in a variety of configurations, such as quadcopters (four rotors) and hexacopters (six rotors), and they are especially adept at stabilizing a camera over a fixed position for a length of time, and are good for scanning a large structures such as buildings or monuments.

Yet at this time, the preferred drone is the one that can perform the job at the lowest possible price. Interested people can buy ready-made drones and software for tens of thousands of dollars. Or they can invest a considerable amount of time and learn how to build and operate one themselves for about a thousand dollars.

There are some drone companies who already have very good, reliable products, but they may not suit all or even some journalists or news organizations.

At, we decided to build our own drone to our own specifications. We see it as a low-cost solution that journalists the world over will be able to replicate. We hope to not only have a drone that works, but we hope to learn tricks and skills along the way that will make the process of drone journalism more efficient.

7. Are you working any coverage right now that involves the use of Drones? If so may you tell a little more about it?

Right now, I have several news stories scheduled for the drone. They all involve acquiring photographic maps of certain parts of this University town. One mission will look at how people are affecting the environment through pollution and the runoff of pollution, and the other will look at how the environment is affecting people through flooding and the mitigation of flood water.

Earlier this year, I tried to deploy our first prototype in a town that had been heavily damage by tornadoes. But this takes a tremendous amount of skill, and I accidentally destroyed the drone before it was able to capture any good footage. I’m working right now on a stronger drone that’s better suited for rugged environments, and I’ve reinforced it with advanced composites, such as carbon fiber, to make sure it doesn’t get destroyed. We intend to fly it very soon.

8. In my research on the subject I’ve learned that there’s a lot of Universities in the USA that are creating Drone Journalism Labs and financing researchers in this field. What you think of that? Do you think Drone Journalism will be a common discipline in the teaching of journalism in the future?

 I am familiar with Matt Waite’s Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, and I think it will become an excellent model for other journalism schools to follow. Waite is creating a “hacker space” where journalists can come together with hackers and develop new and useful tools for reporting. Drone journalism may not end up being a separate discipline, like photojournalism is from writing journalism, but Waite’s indication is that it will a useful skill and part of a toolbox for the next generation of journalists. I think it’s exactly the kind of innovative approach that young journalists need.

9. Until now there has been no legal impediment to the use of the Drones in journalism coverage. I think that there are two sides the soon will be on the agenda: one is about the fact that it my be misused by the wrong side of the media, like paparazzi, or to invade someone else’s privacy, and the other side is that somehow it challenges the power of some institutions (such as the police, the government) showing facts that aren’t supposed to be known. Besides, there’s the fact that Drones are small aircrafts and are submitted to Air Force regulations laws. Although these are incipient issues, is there any discussion that’s going on around them? What do you think of that?

The United States at this time has fairly restrictive laws on drones. There is no commercial use of drones allowed, and only government institutions and hobbyists are allowed to fly drones at this time. In addition, law enforcement are been given preference by the Federal aviation authorities and now have a “streamlined” application process.

There has been a great deal of discussion around the non-military use of drones, even more so than the military use of drones. At a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution, the ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump made the comment that it’s very rare that we get to talk about a nascent technology before it is introduced. Usually, we only discuss technology after it has been adopted. It’s customary to discuss the consequences only after they’ve happened.

Certainly privacy is of a concern, and so is the public’s right to know. I think there are other concerns that have not been as well discussed, such as what is going to happen to our public spaces when drones proliferate. Again, as the capabilities of these drones increase, so does the complexity of the tasks we give them. We will invent new jobs for them as we go along, and we don’t really know what we’ll be concerned about in the future because we don’t know the boundaries we will be contending with.

10. In your experience, which media coverage that used a drone was the most difficult to accomplish?

I think those first drone photos of the Russian protests were very well executed. The drone operators piloted their craft safely around many people, and yet from a high enough altitude to capture a sweeping photo of the protest.

But if I had to pick the best footage in terms of difficulty, there’s a team of drone pilots who go by the name “Team Black Sheep,” who have taken absolutely breathtaking high-definition video over the Grand Canyon, the Alps, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Las Vegas. They’re not a business, they run on a miniscule budget, and yet they are well ahead of the curve for drone photography.