August 20th, 2013

Transcript – Drone Journalism

ROBOTS (Sabine): Hi Matt, welcome to Robots.

Matthew:  Hi, thank you for having me.

ROBOTS:  Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Matthew:  Sure thing. My name is Matthew Schroyer. I’m a communications specialist, social network analyst and Drones for Schools Robotics Outreach with EnLIST, which is a five-year, five-million-dollar National Science Foundation grant to improve STEM education through entrepreneurial leadership. I’m also the founder of, the co-founder of, and I also write about drone centers and journalism on my personal website and occasionally I report and contribute to a small unmanned systems website called sUASNews.

ROBOTS:  That is quite a list! Let’s jump in with drone journalism – what is the goal and motivation behind this website?

Matthew:  The motivation came in 2011 when three different movements collided. One was a major world political event in North Africa, another was an institutional change in the world of journalism and how information is delivered, and the final was a technological disruption.

Starting with the first one, the Arab Spring Uprising that occurred in North Africa in 2011 was very important to the journalism community. We lost a member of our community, Tim Hetherington, an award-winning documentarian who made the documentary Restrepo, which covered the war in Afghanistan. He died in Libya trying to report on the Arab Spring in a very dangerous situation, and that started a conversation about how to record on this world-changing event in a safer manner.

In terms of institutional changes in the world of journalism, we’re moving right now to an era of post-industrial journalism, and that’s the subject of a recent paper by Emily Bell from Columbia, Clay Shirky from NYU and CW Anderson who’s from CUNY. Essentially the premise of this is: newspapers are set up like factories, and if you’ve seen a picture of a newsroom, it’s basically rows and rows of desks with journalists at them.

Increasingly that’s becoming not the case. The status of newspapers as an institution is decreasing, and part of that is because they’ve thrived on an information monopoly due to their status as gatekeepers of information … but [this status] has been undermined due to the fact that everyone has a Twitter or Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and basically 100 other places where they can publish their personal accounts. The role as a gatekeeper has been diminished a lot, and there’s good and bad that comes with that kind of disruption. But simply put, journalists have to move up the information food chain to provide more exclusive, important information, and increasingly that means data.

For instance Nate Silver is a journalist in this movement. He is a former New York Times blogger for the 538 Blog who broke past the old horse-race model for reporting on political campaigns, and began quite successfully aggregating and weighting the results of polling institutions with excellent results. A more relevant example in drone journalism is the Fukushima Disaster in 2011: an earthquake, tsunami and, subsequently, a nuclear meltdown of a power plant in Japan.

The United States government launched unmanned aircrafts more commonly called drones for an airbase in Guam. These are enormous aircrafts – some of the biggest unmanned aircrafts that the United States owns – and we used them to collect aerial images of what’s happening at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We were collecting infrared images to find out the condition of the nuclear reactors that were melting down, how radiation was being released into the environment.

That was great on a governmental level to help track things on the ground, but none of that data actually made it to the people. Citizens were left in the dark about what was actually happening on the ground at Fukushima. In response to that, a group of DIY hobbyists set up Safecast, which was a network of Giga counters that a person could build in their garage or their basement, and they were all linked on the internet so that everyone could see the data of the condition of radiation around Japan.

That brings it to the final piece of the puzzle: the Maker Movement. It’s a technological disruption that brings it all together with low-cost robotic components like sensors and micro-controllers, but it’s also a whole open-source community that shares designs, code and ideas, and this is what gave birth to DIY Drones movement.

I created as a response to all these events. I set it up to help establish the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism.

ROBOTS:  You mentioned that journalism is no longer centralized, that it’s changing because everyone has their own twitter account etc., but it could be that everyone ends up getting their own drone as well. Do you think drones will allow you to keep an edge?

Matthew:  Yes, it’s an effort to remain relevant, having to go higher up on the information food chain. We know from Fukushima and things like the Deep Horizon oil spill in the US Gulf that there’s still demand for public information and data, and this is one way we can collect that and give it to the general public.

ROBOTS:  The safety aspect is something that I had really never thought of. You think about it for the military but you don’t really think about for journalism, but I think that makes a lot of sense. Is autonomy an important factor in the robots you want to deploy for journalism?

Matthew:  Absolutely. Autonomy essentially makes it easier for us to do our jobs. Journalists today are tasked with so many responsibilities – not just from interviewing and writing, but increasingly web production and coding. To add drone pilot to the list is a pretty tall order for a lot of people, myself included. It requires a whole new set of skills. The more autonomous the aircraft are, the less that we have to do on the ground to make them work.

There’s also an argument that making it more autonomous does make it safer. It’s the same argument for self-driving cars, that when you take the human out of the equation there’s less room for errors in judgment and less room for problems. From both a safety perspective and an ease-of-use perspective, autonomy is something that we hope will increase the use of drones in journalism.

ROBOTS:  Who’s involved in

Matthew:  We are a group of about 15 journalists, representing all continents except Antarctica (we don’t expect a journalist in Antarctica with a drone any time soon, though that’d be interesting).

The members range from a number of backgrounds, some of them more technical and involved in STEM fields and who see this as an additional use for their service. On the flipside of the coin you have journalists who have been operating for many years, some with a technical background, some learning along the way and these people see drones as an opportunity to augment their reporting. Here in the United States we have a television weather man from Las Vegas who approached his boss at the station because they were the only major station in Las Vegas that did not have a news helicopter, and this journalist saw it as an opportunity to bring extra coverage. So the news station sent him to an online university to learn how to build drones, fly them and just understand in general what they’re about, and he’s been experimenting out in Las Vegas with bringing this into everyday news reporting. Then you have people such as Ian Hannah who is a journalist and videographer in Canada, and who has quite a bit experience with camera gimbals and the big rigs that are still flown on manned helicopters, as well as experience in war zones and overseas. Ian Hannah is the operator for; they do some amazing aerial video that is quite dramatic. He saw this as an opportunity to apply his technical skills to his field. We also have people like Kirk Owen in Australia who worked with the Australian Broadcasting Company, and he’s also been to warzones and saw the opportunity for this to make warzone reporting much safer among other things.

It runs the board, and there’s some people involved who are just more familiar with radio-controlled hobbycraft and thought that they could also do something in their community.

ROBOTS:  It’s fascinating that the Maker Movement has allowed these journalists to sometimes actually build these aircrafts themselves.

Matthew:  Absolutely. That’s the whole reason why I’m involved with this. Honestly I have to give a lot of credit to the Maker Movement and specifically groups such as, which is all about home-brew unmanned aircraft. For a very small amount of money, people who are willing to do a little bit of leg work, research and go through some trial and error can construct an aircraft in their home.

To make a real-world comparison, a news helicopter might cost about $3000/hour to operate. Thanks to low-cost sensors, crowd-sourced code and the Arduino system, and better battery technology, you can essentially have a drone to own for the same costs of operating that manned helicopter for one hour – and you’d have it to keep. And you could get so much closer to subjects, especially when reporting on wildlife habitats, than you could with a manned helicopter.

ROBOTS:  Have you personally used drones for journalism?

Matthew:  Not really. It’s in more of a research phase at this point, but that’s partly because of the stiff regulations in the United States. There is essentially a ban on commercial operations in the United States for unmanned aircrafts, and we expect that to continue at least until 2015 if not longer. At which point we hope that the Federal Aviation Administration will come down with rules to help us operate in a commercial capacity.

There is some leeway with universities and government organizations. If you’re part of a government organization or a university, you can obtain what’s called a Certificate of Authorization (COA) so that you can operate it in a very limited capacity. You have to submit plans for the aircraft, you have to submit information about who’s flying it, their credentials, and you have to do this with about 60 days notice. For things like spot news it would be applicable, but you wouldn’t be able to just show up and fly … you have to plan it out clear in advance.

That’s caused a blockage in being able to use this for reporting, but that’s not to say there hasn’t been some very interesting news reports to come out of drones. And honestly because of these restrictions, some of the most important reporting has come out of that same hobby sphere that developed the technology …

Right around the time that I founded there was a hobbyist near Dallas, Texas who was testing his equipment (nothing more than a radio-controlled aircraft with a Digital SLR Camera attached) and he was flying this around and was taking some pictures. He retrieved the aircraft and the photos to find that there was river in the area that was painted red. He gave the photos to the coast guard, which then kicked off a federal investigation, and that investigation revealed that there was a meat packing plant in the area that was dumping pigs’ blood into this river. Citizens in the area had reported strange smells for some time but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what exactly was causing this. The meat packing plant has since been shut down and the area has been cleaned up, and the residents don’t report the same problem they used to with the smell. That was a hobbyist who wasn’t attempting to be a journalist, didn’t set out to do any journalism, but who still provided a great service to the public in retrieving those photos.

Some other really interesting things to happen in the world of drone journalism occurred in Istanbul with the demonstrations in Gezi Park. I did an interview for sUASNews with an individual who got their hands on a fairly inexpensive quadcopter manufactured by a company called DJI – basically an RC helicopter with a camera attachment to it so that you can get aerial videos – and this young man in Istanbul originally set out to make his own personal documentary of Gezi Park in Istanbul before it was supposed to be razed and turned into a commercial shopping center. When he got down to the park, there were a lot of demonstrations and clashes between police and protestors. He flew his aircraft in the sky, and got some pretty dramatic photos of these clashes between police and protestors. Unfortunately [the quadcopter] was shot down by police as he was recording, but the very next day he was able to find another and continue to fly, and I believe he’s flying to this day. This was an individual who [didn’t] set out to be a drone journalist, but after I interviewed and he considered the value of the footage that he was collecting, he changed his bio on Twitter to ‘drone journalist’ and I thought that was pretty interesting.

ROBOTS:  That’s fascinating. Those are wonderful stories that illustrate how useful these drones are for journalism. What are some of the technical challenges that you face in the field? If you really want to deploy these drones easily to do journalism, what are some of the barriers you still encounter besides the legal barriers?

Matthew:  We’ve come a long way in terms of cost, which is not so much of a barrier anymore. It’s easier to obtain these high capacity lithium polymer batteries to get good flight times. The servos are improving in quality, decreasing in price. The thing that’s becoming a barrier to a lot of journalists is just the technical difficulty in learning to fly. That can be solved with a little bit more autonomy. The aircraft that I work with are semi-autonomous; I primarily work with fixed-wing [drones], which are basically just airplanes as opposed to helicopters, and these are aircraft that I have to take off manually, and have to land manually. So it requires some technical expertise, some expertise in flying, to be able to get it up in the air and to retrieve it safely.

An improvement in systems and in autonomy will help a lot more journalists get into this. Another thing that would help is looking at the platform not just for impressive aerial video and photos, but also as a platform for data … software to help streamline the process of flying the aircraft in a pattern, obtaining the photos and then interpreting the photos geospatially… being able to measure things in the photos and know that that’s a certain measurement on the ground would help journalists a lot. This is all stuff that journalists can do today if they’re a little enterprising, and any advancement in this area would just bring down the barriers so that more could participate.

ROBOTS:  On the legal front, the FAA just approved two small drones for civilian use in US. You must be pretty excited about this.

Matthew:  Yes, it’s an interesting development. I do think that it doesn’t change a lot of things because while these certain aircraft might be approved, there’ still a whole lot of aircraft that have not obtained approval just yet, and even with commercial approval to fly these, it seems like it’s very limited. To unleash drone journalism to the best extent possible, to get aerial data that’s very important for people to have, we need to have not just a number of aircraft that are approved, but basically the entire regulatory structure that says that we can fly under certain conditions if we meet certain safety criteria.

ROBOTS:  You mentioned hobbyist drones taking images that ended up being useful but initially that was not their goal. That brings up the question of privacy, because some of these drones are able to take images of places that you wouldn’t usually be able to take images of. They’re not in the public eye. What are the ethical considerations that need to be taken to make drone journalism non-invasive?

Matthew:  Understandably there’s a lot of concern about privacy. I think that some of the privacy is a little overblown and some of that might be because people may not be familiar with the technical specifications of the aircraft. There’s a belief that some of these aircraft can stay up indefinitely, and while that’s possible in the distant future with advances in solar cells and other technologies, that’s not something that’s going to happen in the near future. And even if aircraft can fly indefinitely at that size via power source, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be eliminated by changes in the weather. These drones are very limited in terms of what they can do in adverse conditions, which means they can’t fly indefinitely.

Having said that, we do know that there’s a potential for abuse here. One of the other reasons why I stared was to establish an ethical framework for how to use these, and in the future we hope to include a Wiki so that members can actually contribute as a democratic conversation on the subject. For now, I jump-started the conversation by putting a code of ethics online that drone journalists can follow, and it’s unlike other codes that I’ve seen before. This one is actually set up as a hierarchy and looks like Maslow’s pyramid. This is because a lot of codes of ethics are basically just lists of commandments, and what journalists really need when working with this technology is a checklist of things that they can go through from top to bottom, so that they can, in an organized fashion, consider all kind of ethical ramifications that they may be doing. So a big part of that is first asking: is there a safer way to do this? Is there a safer way that I can get the video or images? Is this even newsworthy enough? Recording Kim Kardashian’s next wedding from a drone is not something I think would be considered high journalism or something that increases important knowledge among democratic society.

These are all considerations that journalists should keep in mind when using their aircraft, and as a part of that code, we insist that journalists try to keep their aircraft in public spaces. We are not interested in going over peoples’ yards and seeing what’s happening back there – there’s probably nothing worthwhile going on back there in a journalistic sense anyway – we’re concerned about a stream getting polluted, we’re concerned the oil spill affecting the beach or the effect of the hurricane blowing over a community or tornadoes, which is in our backyard.

The code is to try to come to an understanding about proper use of the aircraft. Also in the context of our group, it helps insulate us from liability in the sense that if we operate in a responsible fashion, that helps us in the event of someone outside the group participating in something that’s not ethical and potentially grounding all of us. It’s a little bit of self-policing there too.

ROBOTS:  You’re one of the cofounders of Drones for Good. What’s the idea behind this project?

Matthew:  I’m a cofounder of, together with Alexander Hayes who is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Department of Informatics. He’s worked for the Australian National Data Service and a number of other organizations. He’s an expert in emerging technologies, surveillance and privacy. He contacted me after seeing the things that I was trying to accomplish with STEM education and journalism and thought that together we could combine our expertise to offer a global trans-disciplinary research consultancy.

Part of this is finding more uses for drones that are beneficial in research contexts and STEM education contexts. We try to work with organizations that may or may not be aware of the benefits of an unmanned technology to their application. We try to find them, and equip them with systems that can handle their particular research goals in a cost effective manner, but a big component of what we actually do is informing the public about the technology. That includes public speaking, and recently we had a conference in Toronto at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto called UAVs Pros and Cons where we could bring in experts from privacy, surveillance and the technical side of unmanned aircrafts to address the legitimate concerns that people have about policing and privacy and surveillance, but also demystify the technology and start some constructive dialogue about how it could be used, and the appropriate limits for it.

ROBOTS:  Are you able to shift the opinion?

Matthew:  We think it’s starting to change, but journalists have been part of the problem. My group is partially responsible for this in the sense that most people, when they are introduced to the technology, were introduced to it in reports of horrible things happening in warzones and that’s a truth that no one can get around because that’s how the technology was actually used.

Going back to the beginning of the development of these technologies, even way back to Nikola Tesla, clearly there were intentions for peaceful uses out there. It’s a matter of finding the public and just having an earnest conversation about how they’re going to be used in the future. If you look at a pie chart of where the funding is going to come from in the future in the commercial sector where we expect drones to exist, a huge chunk of that pie, about 2.2 billion by 2017 in the United States, is going to be agriculture.  To use the words of Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics, who was at a San Francisco conference recently for the first ever small, unmanned systems exposition for small business, he mentioned that he hopes that this the future the image of the drone as a weapon will be replaced by the image of the drone as a farm implement.

That’s going to be one of the biggest uses in agriculture, and there are a lot of people who would agree that that’s a worthwhile use for them. They can collect images about plant health so we will know with better accuracy which areas need pesticide or irrigation, so that there doesn’t have to be as much indiscriminant dumping of water and chemicals. A third of the rice fields in Japan at this time are actually being attended to by unmanned aircraft spraying the rice fields and it reduces the amount of pesticides on the field by being so close to the plant and being able to apply it in specific areas.

When you talk to people about this, if they like science, if they like better agriculture, it starts to change the perception a little bit.

ROBOTS:  Whether its 3D robotics or drone adventures or conservation drones, there is really a lot of effort right now to show the positive side of drone technology.

Matthew:  Yes, it’s wonderful to see all the initiatives that have cropped up all over the world. This isn’t an innovation that’s US-exclusive, partly because of the regulatory structure in the United States. There’s more freedom in Australia and Canada and the UK, and there you see a lot more initiatives crop up. I especially like the conservation drones going out into remote areas and helping people who tend the forest to learn how to use the aircraft themselves. They have their own outreach component that’s essential … some people are also involved in reducing rhino poaching for instance, which is another excellent application, but the stuff’s coming at a break neck pace and it’s difficult to keep track of these innovations on a day-to-day basis.

ROBOTS:  You mentioned STEM quite a lot and you’ve been using drones in the classroom. Tell us about your role at EnLIST.

Matthew: The acronym stands for Entrepreneurial Leadership & STEM Teaching Learning – kind of a tongue twister – but we are a five-million-dollar, five-year National Science Foundation grant. We are in our fifth year and we’re all about improving the opportunities for innovation and STEM education, and it’s well known that we have a leaky STEM pipeline in terms of teaching children and having them go on to STEM fields.

We’re trying to address that in various ways on a national scale with things like the Next Generation Science Standards, which are attempting to introduce engineering education from K-12 – something that’s never been done before. Personally, at the grant, we try to train teachers to look for opportunities with other teachers, with organizations in the communities; YMCAs, Boys and Girls Club, companies, plants, businesses, and at the university-level, seeking out professors and grad students and undergrads who can bring lessons into the classroom and start collaborations that have the potential to really to improve and reform STEM education.

We’ve trained about 180 teachers, I believe, over the past five years. They’ve gone on to do more than 32 initiatives. It’s hard to keep track of 182 teachers because they tend to be so active with developing these things, but they range the full gambit from having high school students come in and teach elementary students about science concepts and serving as some sort of science mentors, to larger projects like starting bio-diesel plants, participating in the eco challenge, and the one that I’m most involved with is the Drones for Schools program. This project brings some of the experience that I’ve had building the aircraft in a journalism sense into a STEM classroom concept to teach students everything from the basic stuff of circuits, battery chemistry, the physics of the aircraft, but most importantly, also having them take the role of engineers, which is actually a big chunk of the Next Generation Science Standards.

It’s not just are they applying equations. They’re assuming the role of engineers so that they then know what an engineer actually does. At a high school level, they design, build, and construct an unmanned aircraft to produce an aerial survey of an area. It’s basically like Google Maps but in real time and at a much higher resolution, so the maps that you get in Google Maps from the satellite view are about 30 centimeters per pixel. When you get this close with this aircraft, you can actually get 3 to 1 centimeters per pixel in terms of ground sample resolution.

The other part of the challenge is finding people in the community who could make use of that. There are a lot of farmers in the middle of Illinois – that’s an obvious one – but there are also opportunities in wildlife conservation, geology, that sort of thing.

ROBOTS:  That must be so exciting. I find it crazy that something that was very novel during my PhD is being taught in high school classes and they’re able to go ahead and fly drones. It’s going to sound silly, but I had a pink drone. They made it specifically for me and I wonder if there’s anything you can do to make drones more appealing to young girls because that’s not obvious.

Matthew:  We have a couple of girls who are involved in the Drone for Schools and they tend to be very go getter-ish. They definitely make some of the most motivated students that we have, and that’s awesome. I started out in 2003 as an undergraduate in Engineering and I ended up somehow with Masters in Journalism. I’m kind of in the middle right now … I go into the classrooms, and I help deliver STEM education.  I’m not an expert on the research on getting more women and minorities into STEM education. I do know from experience that’s there’s probably some things we could better to help reach out and to attract women and minorities.

When I was recently in San Francisco for this unmanned systems conference for small businesses, there was a news report on the television about a program that was basically girls-only; it was trying to find ways to bring girls in, and to have them build robots, programs and work through problems with the robots.

Some of the comments were enlightening. These were children in middle school [who were saying that] sometimes it can be difficult to operate in the same environment as boys at that age because they tend to be very pushy. The boys might want to take a more authoritative role, they want to take command, and that can ruin the experience for a lot of people. Part of the solution might be creating programs that cater just to women and minorities. Improving the environment can go a long way to increasing women and minorities in STEM education and in some fields.

ROBOTS:  That’s interesting insight. Can you give us a final word on the development of drones in the near future?

Matthew:  We’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of unmanned aircraft and we’re constantly finding more and better uses. Just the other day I was reading a story about development on an unmanned aircraft to deliver water during a wild fire, which is something that’s becoming an increasing problem in the West.

These massive wildfires that stem from global climate change and general dry conditions, and we actually lose C 130 Hercules aircrafts at a pretty alarming rate, we were trained to fight these fires from above and this was kind of a no-brainer.  I think we’re going to have more of these no-brainers as time goes on, as unmanned aircraft become not just more capable in terms of sensors and cost and flight duration, but also in their acceptance so that we can open up the regulatory framework a little bit to let small businesses fill these niche roles. I don’t think any of us really know what it’s going to be like in the future but we have some clues: they’re going to be autonomous, they’re going to be more capable, and I don’t think anyone really thought that the so-called robot invasion would happen quite like this, but more than other unmanned aircraft, have perhaps one of the biggest footprints in terms of impact in the near future.

ROBOTS:  Thanks Matt for being here with us on Robots.

Matthew:  No problem it was a pleasure.

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