Drones shaping new forms of journalism

By Kylie Jue

Stanford University

When people think about the rising use of technology in journalism, they often envision social media sites and data visualizations, not necessarily flying quadcopters.  Ben Kreimer, a journalism technologist and beta fellow with the BuzzFeed Open Lab, and Samaruddin Stewart, 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, spoke about the potential uses of drones for storytelling at the ASNE-APME Conference on Saturday.

Quadcopters, the four-propellered devices most commonly used in journalism, move through the air by changing the speed at which each individual propeller is turning.IMG_3666

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Stewart spoke about how the technology has evolved rapidly over the past five years, from the Parrot AR.Drone of 2010, one of the first drones created, to today’s DJI Phantom 3. Developers are no longer worried about keeping the devices aloft. Instead, they are incorporating gimbals (mechanisms to keep cameras level despite turbulence) to stabilize in-flight videos and photos, Stewart explained.

With over 30 million drones projected to be sold this year, Stewart said that the market is expected to reach almost $2 billion in 2015.

Stewart highlighted three reasons why journalists should care about the potentials of drones: accessibility, cost efficiency and audience engagement. In addition, one does not necessarily have to be a skilled pilot to benefit from their usage.

“I really don’t enjoy the idea of flying these crafts,” Stewart said. “I really enjoy getting the visuals out of it. I’m enjoying getting the stills or the videos, and I’m trying my best not to crash the thing.”

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When compared to the use of helicopters, which Stewart explained operate at thousands of dollars per hour, quadcopters are “a fraction of that cost.” Their small size also makes them practical for traveling or exploring places that are difficult to reach, such as London’s underground cross rail tunnels or an active volcano in Iceland. Most recently, drones were used to film the damage that resulted from floods in South Carolina.

Kreimer himself has worked with wildlife conservation organizations in Africa on projects using drone journalism.

“The storytelling potential for drones is enormous,” Kreimer said.

“These systems are great because they’re so small,” he added. “They can be launched out of the backs of vehicles; they’re easy to catch when they’re done flying. So they’re really easy to work with – pull it out of a backpack and away you go.”

Most importantly, both Kreimer and Stewart emphasized the quadcopters’ potential to engage audience members with content.

“Just the cinematic appeal of this stuff, the incredible kind of beauty and ability to just keep the audience watching – I think it’s hard to negate that,” Stewart said. “The idea [is] that, at some point, the audience to some degree are going to be expecting it.”

Kreimer has used the images taken by drones to digitally reconstruct interactive 3D models of real-world places.

“It places people who use the models into that space. It gives a much better idea of what it feels like to be in this landfill or in that mosaic excavation,” Kreimer said. “It encourages interaction and exploration, and you’re no longer just watching a video or looking at photographs.”

“Now you can actually, to some degree, engage with the space,” he added.

Drone journalism is not without its limitations. Their range is often limited to one-mile at most, especially because many are off-the-shelf products, Stewart said. Also, policies surrounding drone usage are constantly shifting.

“It’s something that’s ever-changing, and so even something I tell you today might not be true in a month from now,” Stewart said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Section 333 requires an observer to be present in addition to a pilot when drones are flown, and users should double-check their surrounding “No Drone Zones” before flying.

But in general, drones still have immense journalistic possibilities; not only to enhance existing content but also as primary storytelling outlets themselves.

“The one thing that I wanted to come out of today was being able to teach people where the industry’s at,” Stewart said in an interview. “The one thing that I see over and over again – there’s either a misunderstanding around the technology or sometimes the technology is misrepresented from what it really is.”

“The drone is just a tool – it’s a tool to tell stories,” he added. “It’s not going to be the savior of journalism on its own, but I think, used correctly, it’s a great way to get people really really engaged with storytelling.”

To check out video of the drone presentation, click here.

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