Sometimes, the most powerful ideas sprout from a series of seemingly intractable challenges. In 2011, amid the collapse of print media, widespread political upheaval, and natural and manmade disasters journalism faced a new set of challenges. The drone has now emerged as an effective and transformative tool for a new era of journalism.
That year, I was teaching journalism at the University of Illinois. Most mornings, I streamed the Al Jazeera English news feed on the classroom projector. In January of that year, when a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi died after self-immolating in protest against the government, the Arab Spring was born. By mid-February, my students were watching Libyan rebels shooting at Muammar Gaddafi’s forces with anti-aircraft guns mounted to Toyota pickups.
Information about the uprisings came to us directly from the sources via Twitter and YouTube, but intrepid journalists nonetheless put themselves in harm’s way. Many journalists never made it home from Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. These losses made the journalism community pause to think about how reporting on critical humanitarian and political events could be made safer. A few started thinking that drones might be an answer.
Two months later, a 9.0 magnitude quake struck Japan, killing more than 18,000 people and triggering a tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The United States deployed the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft from Guam to remotely monitor the stability of its reactors with infrared sensors.The Japanese government chose not to release the data that had been collected by the U.S. drone. And yet, there was no shortage of demand among the public for this data.
With help from the international hacker community, Japanese citizens took data gathering into their own hands with Safecast, a project to crowd-source radiation monitoring. At the heart of this effort was inexpensive, versatile, and accessible open-source hardware. Designs, code, and real-time sensor readings were shared freely online.
Of course, this did not happen in a vacuum. It was accompanied by another widespread technological disruption: the advent low-cost additive 3-D printing. It can take many hours to fabricate a small component with current 3-D printers, but any enterprising person with a bit of tech savviness can now easily fabricate a custom widget and distribute plans online so that widget can be replicated globally.
3-D printers, in turn, were made possible in part thanks to a new generation of low-cost, low-power microcontrollers. Whereas computer processors are designed to handle multiple applications, from spreadsheets, to word processing, to browsers and games, microcontrollers run just a single application, over and over. CPUs are coveted for their versatility, but microcontrollers are prized for their efficiency and robustness. Microcontrollers are nothing new, but a new open-source software and hardware ecosystem around these microcontrollers enabled “newbies” to make interesting things quickly.
The Arduino system, for example, was developed in Italy in part so that artists, and other folks who aren’t necessarily comfortable with programming, could dive in and immediately create artwork that reacts to changes in the environment. Enterprising hobbyists discovered that if you wire an Arduino up with accelerometers, gyroscope chips, barometric pressure sensors, and GPS receivers, you have a low-cost aircraft autopilot. And if you install that autopilot in a radio-controlled aircraft, you can make a semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle.
All over the world, hobbyists and “makers” began experimenting with unmanned systems. Crucially, hobbyists shared their experiments with a global online community. Other hobbyists added functionality, improved reliability, and then released their results back into the community. The result was a continuous, crowd-sourced development cycle. This community also shared ideas for useful applications for unmanned aerial technology. The DIY Drone movement was born.
I started out as an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, but somehow ended up with a masters in journalism. When I first discovered the DIY drone community, I was initially blinded by the novelty of personal drones and didn’t immediately comprehend the thousands of non-recreational and non-military applications. After reading about the accurate and inexpensive drone mapping accomplished with these systems, on May 26, 2011, I realized that the drones could gather essential data for investigations while also putting distance between reporters and the hazards of war reporting. I sat down to write “Drones for Journos.” Then, in November 2011, I launched DroneJournalism.org to establish “the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism.” Today we have more than 70 members, with drone journalists and drone developers in every continent on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica.
The technical and ethical framework for drone journalism is in continual development, but progress is being stifled in the United States, where current regulations greatly restrict commercial use of even the smallest, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles. Despite this roadblock, regulations give a great deal of freedom to hobbyists. DroneJournalism.org’s U.S. members have operated as hobbyists to record breathtaking landscapes, historic places, water parks, and public festivities. For the moment, journalists have to hold back from using drones for serious reporting in America.
Indeed, with the appearance of this technology, some of the most impactful drone journalism is being done by those who hadn’t even set out to be journalists. In Dallas, Texas, a hobbyist with a radio-controlled airplane inadvertently revealed that a meat-packing plant was dumping pig blood into a nearby stream; the video of the plant resulted in public outcry, and prompted an official investigation. Earlier this summer, I interviewed a young man from Istanbul who planned to use an RC helicopter to record Gezi Park, which was set to be demolished in order to make way for a shopping mall. He ended up recording the major protests that rocked the city for weeks and made headlines worldwide. Now he describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “drone journalist.” This proves that even when used by “makers,” drones have enormous journalistic potential.
This new tool will likely prove to be as transformative for journalism as smartphones and social media, but integration isn’t going to happen without incident. Given the News Corp hacking scandal, and the innumerable transgressions of the paparazzi, there is legitimate cause for concern about the threat that drone journalism could pose to privacy. And as advanced and intelligent as unmanned systems technology has become, safety is still an issue.
Despite the risks involved, and challenges that remain, drone journalism will ultimately lead to a more informed society. Drones will give journalists access to the kinds of high-resolution, on-demand, quantifiable evidence once only available to spy agencies and defense contractors. Like social media, drones will help bring about a new information revolution—if, of course, those drones are used wisely.
Matt Schroyer is a journalist and the founder of DroneJournalism.org.
Cover Photo by Dan Gettinger