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Drone project seeks funding for fall

Drone over Francis QuadrangleThere are environmental / agriculture stories to be told about pollution and drought that have the potential of being shared only from a bird’s eye view using video-capturing drones, said Scott Pham, content director at KBIA radio.

This is one message Pham, founder/director of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, plans to share as part of the upcoming Global Editors Network News Summit in Paris later this month. Pham has been invited to join a panel discussion to talk about potential future drone use in journalism.

Pham, along with a team of faculty, staff and students, has been researching and testing drone technology at the Missouri School of Journalism and KBIA radio for the past six months.

According to the GEN’s website, the panel discussion “will give media leaders insight about the possibilities offered by unmanned aerial vehicles, clear examples to guide future investments and strategy, and journalistic issues that newsrooms need to consider about their use.”

Pham will be joined by Peter Bale, vice president and general manager of CNN International Digital; Mark Corcoran, senior editor at ABC News; and Gary Kebbel, professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

About the Missouri project

Scott PhamThe Missouri Drone Journalism Program received funding about six months ago from the MU Information Technology committee for research and testing. The project is collaboration between the Journalism School, the IT program, KBIA radio and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

The program has provided a rewarding and exciting journey for not only the faculty and staff but students, as well.

Science Journalism Professor Bill Allen, who taught a class under the Drone Journalism Program last spring, said: “We found that flying drones is a lot of fun. It excites students tremendously and inspires great creativity. It’s fun to be a pioneer in a new field of journalism technology.”

However, the program faces several challenges. One challenge is the possibility of legislative restrictions facing the use of drones on private property. The Missouri House of Representatives has passed a bill that would limit drone use. The bill is now in the Missouri Senate.

The Federal Aviation Administration also forbids commercial use of drones, which includes reporting at for-profit newsrooms. However, the team’s work is mostly educational/research based. They are also able to use the technology because KBIA is a non-profit organization. The team believes the FAA is expected to change rules to expand drone application in 2015 after Congress proposed bills on domestic drone use.

The team hopes to continue its work with drone technology this fall. They are seeking additional funding to explore more advanced drone technology, as well as how to overcome technical and storytelling challenges posed by drones.

What the team has learned so far

  • With more funding the team could purchase technology that would give them a view of what the drone is seeing. More advanced technology could also help the team fly drones higher, farther, and with more accuracy. Different technology may also allow them to gather non-visual information including air pressure and temperature.
  • Drone journalism will require training. Learning to fly the drones has been a challenge since it’s difficult to control the drone’s flight pattern. The team relies on binoculars to see the drone in the air. Students begin by flying mini drones that aren’t equipped with a camera as they’re learning to operate the technology.
  • News leaders could potentially stream live coverage using drones with the right technology. Setting up a live feed is a challenge at this point, said Pham. The team is able to produce limited live coverage by the drone using a cell phone. However, WiFi connectivity is unreliable.
  • Drones can provide coverage of potentially dangerous situations such as fires.
  • Drones are currently being used in industrial applications including agriculture, security and first response.
    • “My first instinct if you can use this technology in research of any kind, you can use it in journalism, too,” says Pham.
  • Only a few news organizations, such as TV stations, are able to get aerial photography and it’s expensive to obtain with existing technology. Drones could help save organizations money, said Pham.
  • Drone operators can fly a drone anywhere from zero to 400 feet in the air if they own the land, if it’s public property or they have permission from the landowner to fly the drone. Anything above 500 feet is the FAA’s domain, not the landowner’s, said Pham. Although users can fly up to 400 feet, they have to consider the quality of photography at that height. The team said their drones never flew above 200 feet.
  • There is some fear of privacy invasion by the drones. Pham said the University is using the drones for environmental and agricultural purposes only and are being careful not to violate any restrictions. He said the team is promoting transparency of the project by posting videos and content on a blog.

Follow project updates here

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist

Miranda Zhang  
Graduate assistant


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