Interview with Ben Kremier, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Posted By dickens on Feb 25, 2014 | 0 comments


Ben Kreimer will be in Kenya from the 27th of February 2014 – 27th

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of March 2014. We are looking forward to benefit from his experience, knowledge and skills

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in operating drones. We have planned to do several projects in Kenya to make a strong case for drone journalism . The stories will be published on this webiste and across the Radio Africa / Star Publications platforms.

Q. How long have you been flying drones? What sort of equipments have you flown?

I’ve been flying since the fall of 2012, beginning with the Drone Journalism Lab’s first UAV: The A.R. Parrot. Since then I’ve flown and done fieldwork with an Arducopter quadcopter, a Spyhawk FPV fixed wing aircraft, and a DJI Phantom quadcopter. Lately the Phantom has been my UAV of choice for fieldwork due to it’s simplicity and portable size. The Phantom quadcopter and all of its accessories fit into an easily checkable suitcase. Having worked extensively with the open source and feature packed Arducopter ArduPilot Mega (APM) flight system, which includes programmable autonomous flying capabilities, I have developed an appreciation for the Phantom and its Naza-M flight control system. It’s an extremely reliable proprietary piece of hardware that is ready to go to work almost right out of the box. I’ve found that the Naza-M provides perfect or almost perfect flight performance without much initial setup, unlike the Arducopter APM which requires significantly more settings adjustments. What the Phantom/Naza-M lacks in features it makes up for in sheer ease of use.

Q. How did you become interested in flying UAVs?

When I was seven or eight I begged my father for a remote control helicopter or airplane for my birthday. I loved the idea of flying remote control aircraft, but I was far too young to safely operate them. We reached a compromise, and I was given a remote control airship! Fast forward to January of 2012: While still a student at the

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my professor/mentor Matt Waite shared with me his vision behind the Drone Journalism Lab. Before leaving Matt’s office I told him I absolutely had to be a part of his project. Flying UAVs with a purpose was an extremely appealing concept because it combined my love of making machines with my desire to fly remote control aircraft, all under the context of exploring and learning about the world we live in through a journalism perspective.

Q. What’s your background?

I have a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and my scholarly interest was and still is in European decolonization history. But outside of my studies I’ve been a life long maker, tinkerer and creative problem solver. As a small child I built myself wood toys in my father’s shop. In middle school and high school I spent my free time welding and building motorized scooters and a motorcycle. When I joined the

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Drone Journalism Lab I shifted my maker focus to working with electronics and small drones. Learning as I went, I built an Arducopter hexacopter drone. Simultaneously I began working with Arduino microcomputers and developing data gathering sensor devices which have tie-ins to building drones. I approach my UAV work from the perspective of a maker in that I love working with the hardware as much as I enjoy flying the aircraft and discovering its potential applications in the field.

Q. There are different off-the shelf drones.What is your advice on buying an equipment? considering durability, stability and replacing parts?

Before buying for fun or for work consider this: Do you like to solder electronic components and work with open source software? If you do then I recommend buying 3D Robotics Arducopter open source equipment featuring the ArduPilot Mega or Pixhawk flight system. The customizable nature and advanced capabilities of the hardware and software, like autonomous flying, are impressive and work very well, but some knowledge and trial and error are necessary before the equipment operates to your expectations. In short, you will probably experience more hurdles if you go the open source hardware/software route. So if you’re not interested in open source hardware and software and want to get in the air as fast as possible, then I recommend DJI brand equipment.

 

DJI multirotor aircraft feature proprietary hardware and software systems which have proven very reliable in my experience. I’ve experienced issues with the Arducopter platform, but I’ve never had any trouble with the DJI Phantom. It’s also easier to fly than the Arducopter quadcopter, and appears more durable because all of the components are protected inside a plastic shell. And while the DJI flight control systems lack the customization possibilities of the Arducopter APM hardware/software interface, their upper level flight systems like the Wookong-M feature autonomous flight capabilities and other features found on the 3D Robotics systems, but are easier to setup and operate.

The catch is that you get more features with 3D Robotics equipment for less money than with DJI equipment. For example, the DJI Wookong-M flight system alone costs about $1200. You still have to buy your aircraft! For $150 more you can get the 3D Robotics RTF X8, a ready to fly octocopter with the Pixhawk flight system featuring autonomous flightpath capabilities.

As for replacing parts, if you go the proprietary route, like with DJI, you’re slightly more locked into buying their components if something goes wrong. For example, you can plug a range of GPS modules into the Arducopter APM system, but the DJI flight systems must use the DJI GPS module. But motors, propellers, and other components can be selected from other companies. When it comes to adding accessory components like camera gimbals and live video feed transmitters you can definitely pick and choose, though DJI does have their own versions which are tailored to their UAVs. Running Arducopter systems you have the most flexibility regarding components, which you can source from many different distributors, making it very easy to build your own aircraft based on your needs, assuming you possess the knowledge to do so. Keep in mind that the idea behind going the proprietary route is that the components have been selected, and are sold by the same company, because they function well together. When going the open source path and selecting your own components you need to make sure all the parts work well together, which may require additional tuning and trial and error.

Q. What do you consider as the greatest threats\challenges of civilian use of drones?

Drones, like the $480 DJI Phantom I fly, are relatively inexpensive but extremely capable aircraft. For instance, the Phantom can fly farther than the eye can see and maneuver easily in tight spaces. Larger

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and more expensive UAVs can fly for kilometers. This presents threats to public safety and privacy, and these threats pose the greatest challenges to civilian use of drones.

Most attention gets placed on the privacy issue. Drones flying over backyards, up to home windows, following you down the street etc. These aircraft can technically do all these things, but drones should not be seen as omnipresent privacy threats. Most of the drone aircraft readily available today would be grounded in the rain, snow, or in high winds (if it’s windy I’d be more worried about an out of control drone falling on me!). And after dark they become difficult to fly, unless you have a night vision camera. Plus there is the battery limitation. Most consumer grade aircraft, like the Phantom, can fly with a camera for between five to 20 minutes on one battery before they need a recharge. Thus, around the clock surveillance is not possible unless you have a dedicated spy who has ample battery reserves. And if you have a dedicated spy then a UAV won’t be the only tool at their disposal.

Technical limitations aside, even with the advanced flight stabilization systems found on many consumer level aircraft, there is still a learning curve when it comes to flying UAVs. If you push the aircraft to their limits problems can arise. And this is why I think the public safety issue is just as important as the privacy concerns because the only thing worse (I think) than having a drone follow you down the street is having the drone following you down the street fall and injury you because of a pilot error or mechanical problem.

If someone carelessly flies a UAV out of eyesight they risk running out of battery power or losing control of their aircraft, especially if their live video feed fails, in which case the aircraft may plummet and cause property damage or hurt somebody. And while some UAVs, like the Phantom, have auto descent features which engage if the power level reaches a certain level, these features are not hardcoded into the system. The user can disengage the auto-descent, in which case a battery can be run until it’s empty, resulting in a plummet. But UAVs can also fail when flying within eyesight. You may run out of power and not realize it, or a wire may come lose. The technology is new enough that unexpected problems can and do arise, and they may catch even the most skilled pilot off guard.

While I think that most individuals will fly their aircraft responsibly, drones/UAVs do suffer from an image problem. But I think this will subside as the public becomes more exposed to the aircraft in real life. I’ve noticed that people who approach me while I’m flying are always very curious about whatever aircraft I happen to be operating. Although these people have never before observed

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such an aircraft first hand, I never sense any fear or suspicion when I talk with them. One woman even told me my quadcopter was, “nerderific!” These experiences have led me to believe that the public’s perceptions of drones, and the negative ideas of drones which some people carry in their minds, are at least partly based on a lack of first hand experience with the aircraft.

Q. Do you think a training\licensing regime is important in managing civilian use of drone technology? Why?

Cost and a steep learning curve used to keep most people away from flying remote control aircraft. Consumer drone technology now makes it very simple to fly such aircraft because the equipment is readily available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to operate. I think a training\licensing regime could be an important step in managing civilian use of drone technology in place of steep learning curves and prohibitive costs,

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especially to keep people safe from reckless and irresponsible drone use, but I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible to implement such controls given the availability of the technology. Consumer drones cannot be easily reigned in at this point unless drastic measures are taken. And even if tight restrictions are implemented, people who want to cause trouble with a drone will likely find a work-around because the technology is widely available. After all, homebuilt multirotor drones are common these days.

Q.What are the opportunities for drone journalism?

Drones are helping journalists gather data and capture aerial imagery in ways never before possible. And while drones are not useful for all journalism stories, the aerial perspective and visual experience provided by UAV aircraft increases the impact of stories which are conducive to the technology. This is due to the capabilities of such aircraft, which can fly and maneuver in places and spaces that are otherwise difficult, costly, or even impossible to reach. UAVs are also a much less expensive and safer alternative to manned helicopters and airplanes. Drones can also serve as remote sensing platforms with the ability to collect data about the physical world, making UAVs a valuable tool for both aerial imaging and data gathering .

Q. What are some of the use cases of drone technology that you think have give(en) viability to the use of the technology by civilians?

The search and rescue potential of drones is enormous. In May of 2013 Canadian police saved a man’s life by using a drone with an infrared camera to find his car after it had rolled off the road in a rural area. An air ambulance had been called in to use a night vision system to conduct an aerial search, but they had been unsuccessful in locating the driver. There are many different types of UAVs, and different aircraft can perform different search and rescue tasks. Small quadcopters can navigate earthquake damaged structures to find survivors. Larger multirotors and fixed wing UAVs can survey large swaths of land for survivors.

Some of the best ideas for drone technology take advantage of a UAVs ability to operate autonomously to help people in hard to reach locations. For example, the Matternet is a startup company that intends to establish networks of UAVs in rural locations to deliver food, medical supplies and other essential goods to people who live in areas where roads become impassable during certain seasons, or where no roads exist at all. Similarly, the Flying Donkey Challenge in Africa aims to deploy a system of UAVs each of which can haul 20 kilograms of goods over 50 kilometers in less than an hour. Such projects are brilliant examples of how citizen operated UAVs can serve people.

I am also optimistic about the use of UAVs for agriculture. I’ve seen the work of an individual who used a UAV to capture near infrared images

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of experimental turfgrass plots, corn and soybeans. He easily captured the aerial images using an Arducopter multirotor UAV, and the results, which showed plant stress, where of great use to the university researchers who were growing the plants to study the effects of controlled water deprivation. Unlike observing the plants from ground level, the high altitude perspective clearly showed which plots were experiencing more stress than others.

Q. You work for the Drone Journalism Lab. How was this project started and what has been achieved?

Started in November 2011 by Matt Waite at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Drone Journalism Lab looks into how drones can be used in journalism and the laws and ethics surrounding such use. Waite was inspired to start the lab when he came across the Gatewing X100 unmanned aerial system while attending a digital mapping conference in California. He instantly realized how such technology could assist journalists in the field, especially when reporting on natural and manmade disasters.

I became involved shortly after the lab’s conception, and since then we’ve been flying, building and buying various drone platforms running various flight control systems. In the lab we are very transparent with our thoughts and work regarding drone journalism, all of which gets shared on the lab’s website, dronejournalismlab.org. Matt has become a leading international voice for drone journalism haven given countless media interviews. Al Jazeera English also came to Lincoln, Neb., to do a video story about us and our work.

 

Because of our transparency, the only story we’ve published (on our blog and on YouTube), a story about the record breaking 2012 drought in Nebraska, resulted in us receiving a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration informing us we were not allowed to fly. The current rules and regulations prohibit commercial use of drones in America. They also prohibit their use by government organizations, a category which

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we fall into as we are part of a public university. Thus we are now pursuing Certificates of Authorization from the FAA which will allow us to continue flying and publishing our work. This hurdle has also motivated me to go operate abroad in India and to collaborate with SkyCAM in Kenya, because neither country has FAA style prohibitions in place.

Q.You have been in India for a few months and managed to do several projects with a drone. Which one stands out for you and why?

Flying my quadcopter at the Baroda Open Soccer Tournament has been the standout so far. Partly this is because The Times of India published some of my aerial photographs taken during the matches. I gave them the images for free, and by publishing some of them the Times of India became the first newspaper in the world to print UAV captured aerial photographs in their sports coverage. I also produced a video of aerial footage captured throughout the week long tournament. When I posted the video on YouTube it instantly became one of the first published examples of competitive soccer documented by a quadcopter or any drone.

None of this was planned, in the sense that I simply showed up at the tournament with my DJI Phantom thinking it would be fun and interesting to fly and capture aerial video of soccer matches. I asked my way up to the event officials and got permission to fly over the field during game play. The officials were hesitant at first, but were sold on the idea once I demonstrated how the quadcopter works and the images it captures. One official even stood with me on the sidelines helping me conceptualize aerial shots while I piloted the Phantom.