Thursday, January 26, 2012

Images from Drone Causes Federal Investigation

In what is possibly the first major exposé initiated through drone technology, a small unmanned craft captured evidence of environmental contamination in Texas.

sUAS News reported that a Dallas drone enthusiast was testing a drone, named “Exposure,” when he captured images of what appeared to be a polluted creek near a meat packing plant.

“I was looking at images after the flight that showed a blood red creek and was thinking, could this really be what I think it is?” he told sUAS news. “Can you really do that? Surely not.”

The hobbyist called a Coast Guard 1-800 number, and state environmental investigators reached the creek 40 minutes after the call.

The Environmental Protection Agency, and several state environmental authorities, executed a search warrant at the Columbia Packing Company on January 19.  A criminal investigation is now underway.

The Fox 4 station in Dallas reported that the plant was still operational during the investigation. Field tests from Texas Parks and Wildlife indicated pig blood and toxic chemicals had been dumped in the plant, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Local news outlets seem to have glossed over the fact that the aerial photos which launched the criminal investigation were taken by a drone, and none seem to have tracked down or interviewed the pilot. Additionally, sUAS News declined to publish the drone pilot’s name, citing concerns about the ongoing investigation.

The pilot’s secrecy may stem from a concern about his own safety and well-being after exposing possible criminal activity (potentially involving persons with power and money). But a commenter in the sUAS story also pointed out that this might also be about the hobbyist protecting his pastime – aerial imagery and drone piloting – from scrutiny and harsh regulation.

The reason for his secrecy may be a combination of both those things, or things yet unpublished. All accounts suggest he was a regular RC pilot, without pretense, who simply stumbled on criminal activity near a Dallas meat packing plant. But this shows exactly what drone journalists are aiming for, and demonstrates what is possible when you combine small, inexpensive airframes with imaging equipment.

Drone journalists, news orgs and nonprofits should make a mental note of this event and learn a thing or two from it. A good way to start a systematic investigative report on the local environment would be to take photos of creeks and tributaries near industrial operations.

1) Aerial photo of the contaminated creek, ostensibly taken by the drone pilot, as published by DMN in an online photo gallery.
2) The Exposure airframe, which is capable of carrying a DSLR camera.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Learning from Crashing in Micro-Drone Journalism

If you are interested in getting started in drone journalism, I highly suggest you first try a small, cheap, indoor RC helicopter equipped with a low-resolution camera.

It will go up into the air, hit something, fall to the ground. And the images will not be great. And sometimes it will just fall over for no apparent reason. And you will fail.

Why choose to fail? Despite how advanced our drone technology has gotten, despite the fact that you can program a microcontroller to automatically fly your helicopter, you still need to understand how things can shake out in the air.

This is my first-ever journalism drone, dubbed “the JournoCopter” by my fiancĂ©e. It’s actually a toy called the “Hawk Eye,” and it’s made by the Spinmaster company under the Air Hogs brand of remote-controlled flying toys. They can be found for between $50 and $70 online, but I was fortunate enough to locate this one on clearance at a Target for $41.

The micro-copter operates via a two-channel remote control. That means there are two discreet frequencies that each control a distinct flight characteristic. For this micro-copter, one of the channels is the throttle for the rotors (makes it go up and down), while the other adjusts the speed of the rotors to allow the helicopter to rotate and change direction (left and right).

In addition to the sticks for throttle and direction on the controller, there’s shoulder-mounted buttons for still-frame photography and video. The helicopter can take more than a hundred photos at 640 x 480 (VGA resolution), and about five minutes of video at 320 x 240 (QVGA resolution). To get the photos and videos to a computer, the helicopter docks with the controller, and the controller docks to a computer via USB cable (included). Interfacing with the computer also charges the lithium-polymer battery in the micro-copter. It takes about 25 minutes to charge the micro-copter’s lithium polymer battery from USB.

How does it handle? It doesn’t so much handle as it constantly drifts forward uncontrollably, leaving you to rotate the helicopter so that it doesn’t run into anything. Flying it outdoors is a challenge, as this small copter is influenced by the slightest of winds. And because this micro-copter is controlled via infrared (IR) rather than radio control (RC), much like a television is controlled by an IR remote, direct sunlight will overpower the receiver and sever all communication.

Therefore, it’s best to fly it indoors. However, most people don’t like to be confined in a room with a fast-spinning object that they have no control over. Which brings me back to why this JournoCopter failure is actually a good thing for drone journalism. By experimenting with a small, cheap, finicky drone, you’re going to realize all of the little problems that could manifest themselves as a big problem in a larger, more expensive drone – because all of them will happen to you right from the start.

What do you do when the wind is too strong? How long do you expect the battery to last, and how will you know before it’s too late? Do you know how this flying object is going to behave? The limits of the flying object? Where are the people, and how do you keep a safe distance from them while still getting the shot? Because if worse comes to worse, you need to be prepared to take control and land your drone without harming anyone. You’ll learn these lessons while earning the fine motor skills that you’ll need to pilot a wide variety of craft.

I don’t mean to denigrate this little wonder, either. For less than $100, this company has managed to deliver a remote-controlled helicopter with a two-mode camera, with onboard memory, that can actually fly. Plus, it’s pretty damn indestructible.

But I would, actually, steer aspiring drone journalists to spend just a little more money for a drone that has a smaller failure rate. I cannot vouch for them, but this Egofly LT-712 Spyhawk and this Silverlit SpyCam cost a little more but might offer better control.

The International Journalists Network recently published a list of the top “Five gadgets from CES that are ideal for journalists,” which included two micro-copters for drone journalism. Those might also be worth looking into.