How Drones Are Informing the Stories We Produce

Drone Journalism Lab founder Matt Waite flies a Parrot AR Drone for a photo in 2012.

As storytellers, we had an eye in the sky. When we set out to tell the story of obesity and malnutrition in Tonga and Timor, the DJ1 Phantom 3 drone we deployed on the field greatly impacted our production. Together with producer Andy Day of KeepLeft, we used a combination of drone footage and traditional footage to tell a multidimensional story, contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the dual challenges of obesity and malnutrition. This is part of the Food Revolution challenge, a LAUNCH project that we will kick off in September. It’s an example of how, when used ethically, drones can inform and illustrate our stories in ways unthinkable in the past.

On August 12-14, several of us will be attending a Drone Journalism Bootcamp in Lincoln, Nebraska. Here, pioneer Drone Journalist Matt Waite tells us more about this new frontier into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted vehicles.

You are a pioneering drone journalist. Tell us how you got the bug?

I was at a digital mapping conference in southern California in 2011. I was going to be starting my new job as a professor in a month and had just finished 10 years at the St. Petersburg Times when I went to this conference to talk about data journalism and mapping. The conference is huge — 25,000 people — and the vendor floor is massive. There on the floor was a Belgian company called Gatewing selling a digital mapping platform in a drone. I sputtered and drooled as the demo video showed them mapping an area from the air, automatically, in a matter of minutes. And all I could think about was all of the hurricanes I covered in Florida. I couldn’t shake the idea after that. By November, we started the Drone Journalism Lab and jumped in with both feet.

What would Walter Cronkite think of this?

I think it all depends on how we, as a business, end up using these devices. I think if we use them smartly, and in the service of good investigative and accountability journalism, Cronkite would be thrilled with them. If we use them for every car crash and house fire, every county fair and arts festival, he’d think it was all a lot to do about nothing. Honestly, I see a lot of both coming.

In 2012, the Drone Journalism Lab produced a story about a record-breaking drought in Nebraska that had left the shallow Platte River dry for most of the summer. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration sent a cease and desist order to the lab, saying the lab was a government operation that lacked permission from the FAA. A year later, the FAA would change their decision and declare the lab a commercial operation.

In 2012, the Drone Journalism Lab produced a story about a record-breaking drought in Nebraska that had left the shallow Platte River dry for most of the summer. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration sent a cease and desist order to the lab, saying the lab was a government operation that lacked permission from the FAA. A year later, the FAA would change their decision and declare the lab a commercial operation.

Tell us about the inspiration behind the Drone Journalism Lab at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln?

The inspiration was a career as a journalist on the ground covering things like hurricanes and tornadoes with a background in data journalism. My main interest starting out was using them to augment disaster coverage so we could give people much more precise and far more expansive views on just how big and/or terrible disasters were in much less time than it takes now.

On June 21, 2016, the FAA released its ruling for the usage of small unmanned aircraft and they go into effective August 29, 2016. Can anyone get a license to fly a drone at that time?

Almost. You have to be 16, you have to be able to read and write English, and you have to be able to pass an FAA knowledge exam. As professional journalists in the US go, the first two don’t eliminate many people from the eligible pool. The last one is the biggest hurdle. For the most part, it’s not difficult knowledge to acquire, but it is specialized, and it can be a little overwhelming to people who have never seen it before. The test is going to be the thing that keeps the most people out. But it’s not an impossibly high bar.

Drone Journalism Lab founder Matt Waite watches as Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Carrick Detweiler inspects an Ascending Technologies Falcon 8. Waite and Detweiler’s NIMBUS Lab teamed up for the story on drought that drew the FAA’s attention.

Drone Journalism Lab founder Matt Waite watches as Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Carrick Detweiler inspects an Ascending Technologies Falcon 8. Waite and Detweiler’s NIMBUS Lab teamed up for the story on drought that drew the FAA’s attention.

What are some of the ethical considerations that are imperative as journalists begin using drones to cover stories?

The first and foremost is this: If you wouldn’t do It on the ground with a long lens, there is nothing about a drone that suddenly makes it okay. There are a lot of grey areas in aviation law — are you trespassing flying over people’s property, what constitutes an invasion of privacy from the air — and journalists should be very mindful of those. Our ethical practices of minimizing harm and respecting the subject of our journalism will help us through a lot of these. We will have to be mindful of how it will look using a drone to look into people’s property when you can’t see things from the street. We will need to be mindful about flying across police lines that we can’t physically cross. We’ll need to be mindful that while our drone might be filming something that is clearly newsworthy and we’re doing everything right, the camera might also inadvertently capture something that isn’t newsworthy and we should be vigilant to not publish things that aren’t in the public interest and potentially harmful to someone. But for the most part, these are just new twists on old ethical problems, and our ground based ethical principles easily apply to the air.

We worked with a videographer on drone storytelling this past Spring in the Pacific (See story below). We used a DJI Phantom 3 known for its portability and power. What kind of drone do you suggest for reporters to invest in? 

The Phantom series is an excellent choice — we have a Phantom 2 and started out with a pair of Phantom 1s. In that same family is the 3DR Solo and the Yuneec Typhoon series. When you want to go up a level and get a bigger platform and a better camera, we have a DJI Inspire 1 and I’ve heard great things about the Yuneec Typhoon H, though I haven’t flown one personally. But I would be very mindful of cost vs experience. You don’t want to run out and spend thousands of dollars on your first drone and crash it into a lake. Start with something less expensive until you are confident in your skills flying. I start students out on a $40 toy that fits in your hand. It has a six-axis gyro on it which makes it behave very similar to much bigger craft. When they can control that, they can move up to something bigger.

Why do we need another storytelling tool? What is it about drones that will disrupt communications?

I welcome any new tool that helps me tell a story better. But we have to realize, a drone is just a tool. Stories have been around for millennia, so it is the height of arrogance for anyone to say that drones are going to completely change storytelling. They won’t. They’ll improve certain kinds of stories — stories with large spatial extents, where mere words struggle to convey the scope and magnitude of something. Drones will make that unique perspective, that visual context, much easier and much cheaper to get, which will give journalists the ability to expand people’s minds about a story faster and better. But that’s what they do — they make certain kinds of stories better, faster and cheaper. They don’t change the story. They don’t create a wholly new form of story. They are another tool in the storytellers arsenal. A very handy tool, yes, but still a tool.

Drone photos shot by Drone Journalism Lab associate Ben Kreimer helped create a computer-generated model of the mosaics at the Antiocha ad Cragum archeological dig site in Turkey.

Drone photos shot by Drone Journalism Lab associate Ben Kreimer helped create a computer-generated model of the mosaics at the Antiocha ad Cragum archeological dig site in Turkey.

Davar Ardalan

About Davar Ardalan

Davar Ardalan is the Director of Storytelling and Engagement at SecondMuse. As a veteran journalist and former social media strategist at NPR News in Washington D.C., Ardalan lead dozens of real-time engagement campaigns to great impact. Most recently she was the Senior Producer and Social Media Strategist for NPR’s Identity and Culture Unit, traveling across the country producing live events and moderating Twitter chats on some of the most critical issues of the day including community and policing, voting rights, education, and immigration. She has cultivated thought leaders across platforms, generating millions of impressions across the globe via Twitter and an even more impressive level of response domestically. Ardalan has also worked as a Supervising Producer for Morning Edition where she helped shape the daily newsmagazine, and was responsible for decisions that required elaborate coordination such as broadcasts from Baghdad, Kabul and New Orleans. Through the years, her public radio productions have been recognized with two NABJ Awards and a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television. She began her radio career as a reporter in 1991 at KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ardalan is the mother of four and lives outside Annapolis, Maryland. In May 2014, she was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity.

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