Most people have heard of aerial drones, but few know what they’re really capable of, especially in the field of journalism.
Most of today’s aerial drone models come with a mounted HD camera (or allow the user to attach his/her own). The journalistic appeal of this feature is somewhat obvious; Do you want to walk into a violent riot, or would you rather send a drone to fly over the action and get a better angle? Do you want to painstakingly map terrain using complicated software and photographs, or would you rather fly a drone around for 30 minutes to achieve the same result? Ultimately, drones can allow for safer, more efficient and thorough reporting.
Environmental, crisis, sports, weather and war-related journalism could all benefit from using aerial drones, yet their implementation in the field is limited. With this dilemma in mind, I set out to answer the following questions:
- What were the first drones like? How did the technology become what it is today?
- Which of today’s drones are best suited for use in journalism?
- How are current drone journalists implementing this technology?
- What are the issues they’ve faced?
- What does the future hold for drone journalists and drone technology?
Drone Data Visualization:
For this analysis on the future drone journalism, I chose to visualize data by creating both an interactive drone timeline and an infographic comparing drone specifications for journalistic use.
I browsed around on a few different timeline creation sites before having a go at Timeglider.com. It was the best site I found in terms of adding media, links and other data to event entries. I wanted to show the transition between military drone use in the past few decades into modern-day personal drone use.
Although drones are still used for military purposes today (The Reaper drone is pretty terrifying), technology has progressed enough to let the drone into the lives of journalists and hobbyists. This ultimately opens up doors into the developing field of drone journalism.
My Timeglider Timeline can be found here. It’s easiest to set the zoom to about 75% and use the “previous” and “next” buttons at the bottom to flip through the events.
If you click on the event title, you’ll see my text entries about the drone models and the sources I used. Feel free to mess around with the zoom and photo sizes if it helps you visually. There are 9 total entries.
I thought it’d be interesting to compare drone specifications and pit different models against each other to determine which one is best-suited for use in journalism.
With this infographic, I wanted to do something similar to the graphic we looked at earlier in the semester that measured the corruption levels of various countries. I used a similar method by using a formula and compiling weighted variables to make the concept of “journalistic potential” more concrete.
This kind of visualization isn’t perfect because it relies on the creator’s opinion. I had to choose how much weight to give each variable and how each input could be translated into a “grade.” The better the overall “journalistic potential” of the drone, the higher its total percentage was on the stacked bar graph.
In short: “Journalistic potential” isn’t easily quantifiable, so I used my own researched opinion to visualize it.
Future implications: The 5 drones I compared were all recently released (2014-2015) and can give us a glimpse into the future of drone technology. They suggest that future drones could have even longer flight times, wider operating ranges and better camera resolutions. Amazon’s new drones are one example of this. The company is working on some pretty remarkable technology right now.
Here are the steps I took to make my weighted average formula and apply the specifications I researched:
How my weighted formula works: I used an Excel tutorial site to make a simple weighted average calculator (the same kind you would use to calculate your grade at the end of a semester). I filled in the spec categories and their weights and copied this format for all five models.
Translating these specs to percentages that reflect journalistic potential was difficult at times. I tried to use the ranges between numbers to determine reasonable percentages. For example:
- Max flight time between these models ranges from 18 minutes to 88 minutes, so I translated 18 minutes a 50% (a failing grade) and 88 minutes to an 100%. I estimated the rest of the numbers by placing them in between this minimum and maximum.
- Same goes for Operating Range. I translated the maximum 2000 meters to 100%, the minimum 20 meters to 50%, and estimated the rest.
- For price, I made the highest number ($10,000) a 50%, the lowest number ($1,495) an 100%, and estimated the rest.
- For camera resolution, I translated 4k to 100% and 1080p to a 90% rather than 50%. This is because 1080p is still perfectly acceptable in the realm of journalism (although 4k is preferred).
- For “Follow-me” and Live stream capability, I made “Yes” translate to 100% and “No” translate to 50%. Both of these features would be helpful for journalistic purposes. They hurt the journalistic potential of the drone by not being included in the programming.
After assigning grades to the specifications and finding weighted averages, I was able to use the formula to determine which drone models were most valuable in the world of journalism.
They are all in the 74-84% cumulative range, but the DJI Inspire 1 comes out on top with an 84% grade for journalistic potential.
Interviews with Drone Journalists
I managed to connect with Rachel VanGilder and Matthew Schroyer over e-mail last week to ask about drone journalism. The e-mail exchanges are attached below.
Rachel VanGilder is a Umich alum working at WOODTV8 as a senior digital content producer. She directed me to an FAQ page regarding WOODTV8’s recently purchased drone: Drone 8 (a model DJI Inspire 1). Most of my e-mail’s questions were answered in this previously-conducted interview by Kyle Underwood, Drone 8’s main pilot.
Matthew Schroyer is the president and founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, an international organization that builds drones for journalistic purposes (including weather, environment, disasters, sports and more.) Schroyer was extremely enthusiastic and informative about drones, even taking the time to send me a thorough reply to my questions. He writes on FAA regulations, his organization’s goals and the future of drone journalism.
Rachen VanGilder Exchange:
Significant quotes from the Kyle Underwood FAQ Interview:
“As restrictions are relaxed and costs come down, commercially operated drones will become more common news gathering tools.”
- Underwood shares my belief that drones will be increasingly implemented in news outlets in the years to come. He didn’t speak on potential consequences of drone use for journalism (probably because of his passion for this technology and the work it allows him to do).
“I think [Drone 8] is going to be a great help to us in terms of visual storytelling.”
- We discussed in class how visual journalism is becoming more prevalent than print and how the millennial generation places greater value in concise, visually-engaging storytelling (rather than columns of text). This is a result of evolving smart phone technology, social media and countless other factors.
- The fact that Underwood was excited about this switch to a more “visual” style of news indicates the strength of the visual movement. It seems almost inevitable that this trend will continue as drone technology develops.
Matthew Schroyer Exchange:
My favorite quotes from this interview:
“[Other drone engineers in 2011] were making platforms that could image perhaps 100 acres of land in a single flight, and doing this on relatively small budgets. The utility of something like that — in a journalism context where you could prove certain things were happening on the ground — was very appealing.”
- The fact that this much land could be digitally visualized in one flight is remarkable in itself. Moreover, this was happening in 2011, when personal drone technology was in early stages of development. It seems Schroyer really capitalized on this opportunity to apply this technology to journalism.
“If the public is going to trust us with flying machines, we need to be responsible with them. In addition to the news, case studies, and rulemaking assistance, we have an ethical code which we expect our members to follow.”
- This is a point I would’ve easily overlooked. According to Schroyer, the drone journalist/public interaction is a “two way street.” If the FAA is going to loosen its regulations for commercial drone use, then drone journalists have an obligation to conduct reporting in a non-disruptive way. The PSDJ’s ethics code is clearly-defined, and it’s obvious that the PSDJ wants the public t0 feel comfortable with news drones in the sky. The more comfortable the public is, the easier it will be to access the full journalistic potential of this technology.
“As far as impact is concerned — that is something we have noticed. American news organizations have fallen behind the rest of the world in developing drone journalism… there’s a lot of innovation going on, [but] it’s just not among the major news organizations who would benefit the most from drone journalism. That is primarily due to the pilot’s license requirement.”
- Schroyer explains that, without a pilot’s license, it’s pretty much impossible to conduct drone journalism as a big news outlet. The US (a country that partly prides itself on technological innovation) is falling behind simply because of operation rules. In my opinion, this is a ridiculous reason to hinder progress. It makes me wonder how deeply drones would be embedded into journalism today if these rules had never been so strict.
I believe that drone journalism has a promising future. The field is still young, the technology is improving at an impressive rate.
Amazon (Amazon Prime Air), for example, sees the value in drone use for shipping purposes. They claim they will soon be able to “deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones.” (From Amazon.com).
Simultaneously, drone companies like Parrot, DJI and Bluefin compete to release new models in fast-growing tech market. This market’s players are fueled to put out the most advanced, most appealing model for the lowest possible price. The more sophisticated and feature-packed the drone model is, the more appealing it will be to potential customers.
Who are these customers? Pretty much anyone with a spare $1,500-$2,000 can be a personal drone owner, including solo journalists. Add a pilot’s license to that price tag, and minor/major news outlets can enter the user base as well.
Perhaps this is where journalism is heading. Perhaps the visual age (which has caused a drastic drop in total journalist jobs) will end up opening doors for journalists with drone experience. Perhaps, far into the future, universities will offer hybrid majors that combine engineering and journalistic practice. Perhaps future graduates will be able to say, “I just got a job at a big news outlet as a drone journalist.”
I’m confident that drone use in journalism will continue to rise. With an eventual lift on harsh flight restrictions and the help of people like Matthew Schroyer, drone journalism has a chance to flourish.