Showing posts with label drone ethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label drone ethics. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Founding a Professional Society of Drone Journalists

It’s been quite a month for drones. After Iranian armed forces captured one of the coveted American RQ170 stealth drones, the very same stealth drone that pierced Pakistani airspace to spy on Osama bin Laden, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman released previously unpublished photos of the carnage that U.S. military drones unleashed in Waziristan.

Later, the Los Angeles Times wrote about how the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection lent a Predator B drone to North Dakota law enforcement. Sheriffs in Nelson County, N.D., fearing a search for missing cattle would end with deadly firefight with a “sovereign citizen” group, spied on the group and arrested members after the drone revealed they were unarmed. The report went on to reveal that local law enforcement had used Predators stationed at the Grand Forks Air Base for at least two dozen surveillance flights since June, and the FBI and DEA have used Predators in their own investigations.

Salon’s Glen Greenwald warned of the expansion of domestic drones, and the sizable lobbying power of drone contractors in Congress, writing “the escalating addition of drones — weaponized or even just surveillance — to the vast arsenal of domestic weapons that already exist is a serious, consequential development. The fact that it has happened with almost no debate and no real legal authorization is itself highly significant.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post dedicated its December 4 front page to the Israeli military’s use of drones in Gaza. But one Post reporter asked the question that journalists like me have been wondering for some time: What’s the potential use for drones in journalism?

Melissa Bell’s piece, “Drone journalism? The idea could fly in the U.S.” mentions my writing on a drone journalism Google group, where I mention that drone technology could help journalists “to take water or air samples or to scan for topographical data to make assessments about industrial impact on the environment.”

Bell mentioned Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and developer of Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact, who just began the world’s first drone journalism lab. Waite unveiled his plan for a drone journalism lab at a News Foo conference, where the immediate reaction was skepticism.

“News Foo had a number of tech people very interested in and sensitive to privacy issues and they were quite wary,” Waite told data journalist Ben Welsh. “They immediately went to TMZ+Lindsay Lohan as an example of how drones could be misused.

“So when I started thinking about this idea, I immediately thought that people would rightfully be wary of this and that the sooner we started talking about ethics and laws, the sooner we could have answers for criticisms and guidelines to balance the public’s right to know and people’s expectations of privacy.”

I was unaware of Waite’s announcement, or his drone journalism lab, until the WaPo story. But given the most spectacular breach of journalism ethics in recent history (the News of the World/NewsCorp phone hacking scandal), it was not lost on me how important it would be to establish a code of ethics for drone journalists. The code of ethics would be deliberated and drawn up by experts in the field, similar to the way the Society of Professional Journalists developed and supported its code of ethics.

To that end, I purchased as the future home of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ). At the time of this post, the website is dominated by a placard that displays the mission statement of the PSDJ: “Dedicated to developing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism.”

I also called Waite to bounce ideas about the first professional organization for drone journalists. One of his ideas was that the organization pursues a code of ethics via Wiki-style collaboration, but that the collaboration should only involve experts and practitioners of drone journalism. He, too, realized the need for an organization to help pull down a concrete ethical framework for journalists.

“This is really cool on one side, really creepy on the other,” Waite said in the conversation. “I think you are being dishonest if you are on the cool side, not thinking there’s something creepy about [drone journalism]. There’s a significant opportunity for mayhem and privacy violations.”

On the other hand, he said, “I think you are missing the point if you don’t see the amazing things you can do with the technology.”

For an example, Waite pointed out that Russian citizen journalists had employed an SLR-equipped drone to obtain aerial shots of a recent protest. The Daily Beast, one of the first news organizations to use a drone, surveyed tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri, and flood damage in Natchez, Mississippi and Minot, North Dakota.

Video from a citizen journalist capturing footage during Poland protests.

Waite said one of the first things he’s going to try to do with his first drones is attempt to violate his own privacy. And, of course, if the drone does violate his privacy, that would make a first case study for developing an ethical framework for drone journalism. “I could stand on a public sidewalk and see if I can’t get a drone high enough to get into my backyard with my kids with a sign that says ‘you’re violating my privacy,’” he said.

But there’s two other components to the PSDJ besides ethics: education and technology. We need to teach journalists how to use the equipment safely and effectively, and we need to keep journalists at the forefront of civil drone technology.

Waite used a $1,000 grant from the company he founded to purchase an off-the-shelf drone, the AR Drone quadcopter by Parrot, to be equipped later with a GoPro HD video recorder. Out of the box, the AR Drone provides a relatively stable platform for shooting video, and is controllable by iPhone or Android smartphone. Steve Doig, a Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist who teaches at ASU, also is experimenting with the AR Drone platform.

"You can get it at Brookstone in the mall," Waite said. "It's got an API and you can hack it. It's made of stock parts. You can controll it from your smartphone. And it's cheap."

A Parrot AR Drone in flight.

The next step for me will likely be purchasing the same drone and outfitting it in the same fashion. Not too much later, I hope to be able to develop some Arduino-based, fixed-wing aircraft to shoot photos along a predetermined path, and stitch those photos together later. But Waite and I know this is just a starting point; an inexpensive, yet effective demonstration of the concept. From there, it’s experimentation and learning.

“What I would love to do, once we have these platforms, is let’s cover some news,” Waite said.  “A house fire in your city. Spring floods. There will be tornadoes, it’s as predictable as the sun coming up. Let’s cover them and write about our experiences and through those.”