Experts offer insights into drone innovation

bySherry Ricchiardi
Aug 20 in Specialized Topics

Code for Africa Fellow Johnny Miller has taken photography to new heights, literally.

His aerial images of Cape Town’s posh neighborhoods co-existing alongside poverty-ravaged shantytowns is a stunning example of drone journalism’s impact on innovative storytelling.

Miller’s photos pinpoint a stark reality: Decades after apartheid in South Africa officially ended, separation between rich and poor, white and black continues to be the norm. White neighborhoods are defined by gated communities and manicured landscaping; Black areas by jam-packed shanties and dirt roads.

“You can show these images to a child and I think he’d be able to pick the side he wants to live on,” Miller said during a CNN report. The photos “show a more objective viewpoint that is difficult to argue with,” he said.

The Seattle-born journalist partnered with Thomson Reuters Foundation to create a four-part series on the world’s biggest slums: Nairobi, Cape Town, Mumbai, and Mexico City.

The project, called “Unequal Scenes,” is a prototype for an emerging paradigm: Drones are revolutionizing newsgathering and becoming a powerful tool for investigations and social issue reporting around the globe.

There are also are formidable challenges incorporating drones into journalism. For insight on the obstacles, ethical concerns and skill requirements for drone journalism, IJNet turned to Miller, based in Cape Town; Kathleen Duncan, senior video editor for the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation and Futures Lab; and Matthew Borowick, a freelance journalist and drone pilot from New York.

Regarding the biggest challenge for pilots, they spoke with a single voice: Keeping up with the regulatory environment wherever they practice their craft. Those flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — drones — in the United States must pass a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test and obtain a permit. Operators must be efficient reading airspace maps, aviation weather reports and safety protocols.

“As journalists we must know where we can use [drones] legally and safely so we can do our job without putting the public, first responders or ourselves at risk,” said Duncan, producer of the video series “Innovation in Focus,” which explores cutting-edge newsgathering methods, technology and tools.

Borowick recited FAA guidelines for safe and legal operation of a drones. Among them:

  • Do not fly higher than 400 feet or within five miles of any airport, public or private.

  • Keep your drone in eyesight at all times; use an observer if assistance is needed

  • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions, such as high winds or reduced visibility

  • Do not fly after dark unless you have permission

“It is possible to acquire permission to fly under such conditions, but it is usually granted on a one-time basis, said Borowick. “The application process is lengthy and not particularly timely. When shooting spot news, the regulations can be prohibitive.”

Miller noted many African countries require permission from a government source. This is “almost always poorly enforced,” he said, “but when caught you are subject to strict punishment. This is a problem because fair and affordable drone regulations are vital to a flourishing drone industry, journalism or otherwise.”

Ethics also can be a stumbling block for drone enthusiasts. Besides traditional values of the profession espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations, there are additional concerns.

The ethics code for the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ) addresses newsworthiness, safety, sanctity of law and public spaces and privacy — which continues to be an underlying issue. 

“We see over fences and over private land easily,” said Duncan. “Is that OK? Are we respecting the privacy of our community in the same way we would with a regular camera?”

With Code for Africa's support, Miller founded africanDRONE to empower drone pilots and drone storytellers in Africa. The ethics section on the website poses a series of questions: “What is your journalistic purpose? How is this tool helping you to tell a more complete story? Would you “do that” if you were capturing the image while on the ground? If you would not peer over a fence, look into a window or enter private property, how would you justify capturing the same image because you are airborne?”

To be a successful drone pilot, Miller believes it is important to master photography, storytelling, editing, fieldwork, logistics and piloting skills.

“I’ve found that it’s a rare person who is able to bring all of these skills together. The best drone journalism I’ve seen has been produced in small teams,” he said, pointing users to the education section on the africanDRONE website.

Duncan cites organization, time management and planning as essential skills. This includes researching where you can fly, planning shots, checking the weather, charging batteries in advance and checking the drone for safety to prevent crashes or faltering in the sky.

Resources and learning tools are readily available online. Some resources, such as DartDrones and Drone Pilot Ground School, charge for services. However, the user-friendly Drone Journalism Lab Operations Manual from the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication is among numerous free options. The Global Investigative Journalism Network provides a master list of drone journalism resources.

When Borowick upgraded to a larger, more complicated drone, he studied YouTube videos and tutorials for hours, taking notes, then going out to practice to develop his skills.

To prepare for the FAA test, he turned to Remote Pilot 101. “This website was perfectly suited to my learning style. [It has] lots of video content with quizzes after every section,” said Borowick. After months of studying, he passed the FAA Commercial Licensing test with flying colors.

Two upcoming training opportunities: A drone workshop sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association is scheduled at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Sept. 21-23. It will offer training on safe drone operations and information journalists need to study for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Pilot’s Certificate.

For additional resources on drone journalism, check out IJNet.

An earlier version of this story mentioned a workshop in Athens, Georgia on Oct. 12-14. This workshop has been postponed.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Ricardo Gomez Angel