Drones for journalism: the next frontier in storytelling

Ben and PhantomWhen the worst drought since records began hit the plains of Nebraska, emerging drone technology provided students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a unique tool to tell the story.

The university’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications had established the Drone Journalism Lab (DJL) in November 2011 to encourage students to explore the potential of this new avenue for storytelling.

So when the drought struck in 2012 students borrowed a custom built drone from the university’s NIMBUS Lab, mounted a camera on it and flew it 400ft above the state’s Platte River. The group captured high quality aerial footage that would normally be out of reach for anything other than a major news channel with access to a helicopter.

Sadly, the lab’s experiments with drones came to an abrupt halt the following July when the US Federal Aviation Authority sent a letter to the DJL saying that as a publicly funded institution the university required a certificate of authorisation to fly UAV’s after finding the video online.

Thankfully though, the seed of inspiration had already been planted. Ben Kreimer, who edited the piece on the drought, graduated from the university in 2013 and since then he has dedicated his time to both practicing drone journalism as well as evangelising about it.

Unprecedented perspective

“The range of movement a drone can get is unmatched by any other camera movement device that exists,” he says. “Drones certainly have a signature look to their video. They definitely have their own shots that they can get that nothing else can.”

Following graduation Kreimer has worked on a host of drone projects around the world ranging from covering football tournaments in India, to filming wildlife on reserves in Kenya and Tanzania, to mapping archaeological ruins in Turkey. As an early adopter of drone technology for journalism he is also in high demand as a speaker at conferences tackling the frontiers of the modern media industry.

“When I got started in 2012 you didn’t have ready to fly systems,” he says. “I came in at a time when you sort of had to be able to tinker to use the equipment. There was a lot of frustration, but at the same time working on the early systems I learned a lot about how they work and what to look for when something goes wrong.”

Nowadays, though, anyone with a few thousand dollars can buy a ready-to-fly, camera-equipped system. Kreimer himself has long since abandoned custom-built technology for a DJI Phantom II carrying a GoPro IV camera, which not only gives him high quality aerial imagery, but also fits in a suitcase and takes mere minutes to set up and get in the air.


Slow on the uptake

Despite the ready availability of the technology traditional media organisations have been slow to adopt. In the USA CNN has begun testing the use of drones for reporting and in the UK the BBC has its own in-house drone journalism team, but the technology remains somewhat of a luxury generally only used on high-end documentary productions.

While costs are falling, Kreimer says the capital outlay on equipment and hiring a drone specialist for a couple of aerial shots to complement larger projects is still seen as too much by most media organisations. “People higher up in companies want to know what story can a drone tell that nothing else can and that’s the challenge right now, figuring that out,” he says.

One of Kreimer’s most recent projects carried out as part of his role as a consultant for Africa’s first drone journalism team African SkyCAM, based in Kenya, shows the potential drone technology has for telling stories in entirely new ways.

Last October Vice reporter Matt Rhodes approached African SkyCAM seeking aerial video and images for a story, as of yet unpublished, that he was preparing on Nairobi’s massive Dandora landfill site. As well as capturing the required video Kreimer used Agisoft PhotoScan surveying software to create a 3D model of the dump from 574 still photographs captured by his drone.

Dandora Dumpsite in Nairobi, Kenya

Revolutionary storytelling

“With this 3D model people can get a sense of the space themselves rather than have me, the drone pilot, steer them around a video production,” he says. “I think that that sort of autonomy is really interesting and at the same time very important. It shows how drones can be used to do something that has not been done before.”

As well as his work with drones, Kreimer is also involved in so-called sensor journalism and he has recently started work on a project in India to create simple environmental sensors that can be fitted to motorcycle helmets to map air pollution. Eventually he hopes to fit the same sensors to drones and he says this kind of application could become a major growth area for the technology, “using drones to capture data that is not visual but can also help tell a story.”

But this ability to democratise access to data is also proving to be a major obstacle to the technology’s growth, as governments around the world get spooked by the increased transparency it offers.

The spread of ready-to-fly solutions has also lowered the barrier of expertise required to get a drone into the air, increasing the potential for accidents. “By making the initial learning curve so short I think it increases the chances that people just out sheer ignorance will crash the drone and make mistakes,” says Kreimer.

Regulatory backlash

The result has been that many governments have simply issued blanket bans on the use of drones while they try and work out how to regulate them and Kreimer is playing a constant game of cat and mouse with civil aviation authorities.

In January the Kenyan government reiterated a ban on all drone activities that shut down his work with Africa SkyCAM, while a project he had been due to shoot for Google on the Nepal Earthquake had the plug pulled after the Nepalese government issued a blanket ban, allegedly in response to irresponsible use of drones by foreign media.

Kreimer believes these bans are unlikely to have the desired effect and as a result are likely to be short lived. “The bans are a temporary fix and not a very good fix,” he says. “People like me who are responsible are not going to fly because of the ban, but people who are ignorant or know about the ban and don’t care will keep flying and these are the people who are going to cause problems.”

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists already has a code of ethics for its members and Dickens Olewe, founder of African SkyCAM, recently held a conference in California with leading voices in the field to discuss how the drone journalism community can police itself.

But Kreimer believes the breakthrough is likely to come when the US FAA finalises its rules on the commercial use of drones, providing a framework to follow for governments without the resources to develop regulations by themselves.

Only then will the true potential of drones to alter the face of journalism be realised, he says. “It’s not just shooting aerial video and taking aerial photographs. That’s been the very obvious entry point for drones and media, but I think that’s just the beginning of what drones can be useful for.”