That new technologies are changing journalism is no longer news. However, the disruption being caused by these technologies have left media businesses and journalists grappling to make sense of the ongoing change and trying to make themselves both profitable
and relevant in this new age. News consumers, who are now more connected than ever before, thanks to the internet, are also exerting pressure on media businesses to reform and add value in reporting stories and infuse new perspectives in their coverage.
Lake Victoria aerial shot
The African News Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the African Media Initiative, provides a platform and funding for African media and journalists to discuss and seek answers to these emerging challenges. In the inaugural competition in 2012, some 20 winners submitted projects which varied from setting up
fact-checking platforms, social media newswire and news monetising models. My pitch, AfricanSkyCAM, also a winner, was to use unmanned aerial vehicles and camera-equipped balloons to give journalists an ‘eye in the sky’ while covering fast moving stories and or negotiating difficult terrain — to give an added perspective in storytelling.
World’s leading media stations like American’s CNN, UK’s BBC and Australia’s ABC have integrated the use of civilian drones in covering stories. AfricanSkyCAM is a pioneer in the continent, using proof of concept projects to make a strong case for using low-cost drone technology in storytelling.
Machakos People’s park aerial shot
Last month, in partnership with Ben Kreimer from the Drone Journalism Lab University Nebraska, we set out to tell stories using a DJI phantom quadcopter — this equipment is shipped as a toy. We covered the KCB rally at the beautiful Machakos People’s Park. The quality of the footage we got from
an elevated angle accentuated the beauty of the park and provided a broader spectrum of the coverage of the rally event.
KCB Machakos Rally 2014
Civilian use of drone technology is not limited to journalism. We also visited Stuart Barden, proprietor of AusQuest farm in Athi River. Stuart farms just over 1,000 acres. He uses modern machinery and technology in farming including GPS precision farming and UAVs fitted with near infrared cameras which produces data that give information on plant health.
Stuart Barden farm in Athi River.
Tech giants Facebook and Google are currently developing exciting projects of using civilian drones and balloons to provide internet to isolated areas around the world. In Kenya, La Fondation Bundi, a Swiss non-profit initiative has received 35 applications internationally to partner with Kenya’s tech community to develop unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying load for some distance. The project’s
aim is to have the first commercial ‘flying donkeys’ in Africa around 2020, which will carry 20 kilos of cargo over 50 kilometres in less than one hour along an established network. The project mirrors online shopping giant Amazon’s futuristic plans to use UAVs to deliver parcels to American homes.
Low-cost drone technology provides Africa with a tool to explore its rich diversity in flora and fauna, stories which have mostly been told by foreigners. Before we produced a promotional video for the beautiful Paradise Lost recreation park in Kiambu County, we tried to find a video that told the history of this beautiful park which has been visited for decades and was used by the Mau Mau freedom fighters — but there was nothing.
Paradise Lost recreational park, Kiambu County
AfricanSkyCAM is successfully making a strong case for the use of UAVs as a tool that allows journalists to tell
‘old stories’ in a new way. We also partnered with CCTV Africa in a wildlife project at the Ol Pejeta conservancy to demonstrate the amazing use case of a UAV. Our aim was to give a different perspective on Kenya’s wild spaces and wild animals which we achieved with remarkable results.
A family of elephants at the Ol Pejeta conservancy
Africa is a massive continent, with vast numbers of its one billion people still living in isolated rural
areas. Few, if any African media, own their own helicopters, and only a handful can afford to hire helicopters to cover major stories. Journalistic drones have the potential to revolutionise media access to frontline events, as well as strengthen journalistic independence for these kinds of stories.
AfricanSkyCAM’s next step is to reach out to like-minded media across the continent to share knowledge, experience and help in kickstarting the adoption of low-cost drone technology in strorytelling.
Landscape of the Ol Pejeta conservancy
Kenyan newspapers today published a picture of a UAV which crashed in a farm in Naivasha causing panic among the locals. The police retrieved the unclaimed equipment which has sparked conversation and curiosity. The Star newspaper published the picture of the UAV on the front page with an alarming headline. ” Mysterious flying object drops in Naivasha”
MALFUNCTION: Naivasha police examine the unidentified flying object that crashed in a Naivasha farm yesterday. The flying object was equipped with a surveillance camera
The story has unexpectedly provided us with a
to participate in a national conversation about UAVs. We have planned to do several projects in the next two weeks to prove different uses cases of UAVs which will be published on this website. It’s therefore a wonderful coincidence that the Naivasha incident has happened when Ben Kreimer from the Drone Journalism lab, University of Nebraska is in Kenya. I asked him to
give his expert opinion about the incident. The article (below) will be published in the Star newspaper
Naivasha ‘mysterious flying object’ is a hexacopter – BY Ben Kreimer
The “mysterious flying object” that recently crashed on a Naivasha farm is a hexacopter remote control aircraft. Without talking to the operator it’s impossible to determine what caused the crash, but it’s likely that the aircraft ran out of battery power, resulting in a fall, or went out of control when it lost connection with the remote control transmitter. Such scenarios are generally preventable because they are usually a result of pilot error. Isolated incidents like this crash in Naivasha should not cast a negative impression over this fledgling technology, for these aircraft are robust when flown correctly
and responsibly, and carry great potential for public good, especially in Africa.
Projects are currently underway which will capitalize on the ability of unmanned aerial vehicles, like hexacopters, to operate autonomously and help people in hard to reach locations. For example, the Matternet is a startup company that intends to establish networks of UAVs to deliver food, medical supplies and other essential goods to people who live in rural areas where roads become impassable
during certain seasons, or where no roads exist at all. Similarly, the Flying Donkey Challenge aims to deploy, specifically in Africa, a network of UAVs each of which can haul 20 kilograms of goods over 50 kilometers in less than an hour.
Multirotor aircraft, and their fixed wing airplane style counterparts, have much to offer search and rescue operations. In May of 2013 Canadian police saved a man’s life by using a UAV with an infrared camera to find him and his car after it 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.
During floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, a hexacopter, like the one that crashed in Naivasha, can quickly fly over large areas of land searching for survivors and expediting rescue efforts. Conservation efforts have also benefited greatly from the use of low-cost UAVs to monitor endangered animals like elephants and rhinos.
For agriculture, UAVs make it easier, cheaper and safer than ever before to capture aerial perspectives of crops and gather data on farm land. This technology can help farmers produce more food.
Due to their sophisticated onboard computers, multirotor aircraft are rapidly growing in popularity for entertainment and work purposes because they are highly capable and easy to fly. Packed
with a GPS, compass and other sensors, human pilots are actually just giving the onboard autopilot system cues on how to fly. Remove your hands from the controls and the aircraft will hover in position waiting for an instruction.
These flight automation systems, when setup properly, make multirotors easy to fly while making them safer, if their failsafes are engaged correctly. It’s important to point out that the hexacopter that crashed in Naivasha used the open source Arducopter APM autopilot flight system. The APM software has safety features which the user can turn on or off based on their needs. For example, the autopilot can engage if the aircraft flies out of transmitter range, flying the multirotor back to the pilot. Or if the aircraft’s battery gets too low the autopilot can automatically land the multirotor, preventing a potentially dangers plummet to the ground.
The problem with the APM’s safety features is that the user must setup and test them to ensure they will perform as desired. The Arducopter quadcopter I have worked with did not come out of the box with the safety features turned on. Nor did it come with a system for monitoring battery levels. Such functionality had to be added and tuned by the user. And while I can’t be certain given the lack of information, it’s possible and likely that the user of the crashed hexacopter had not engaged or properly setup the APM’s safety features prior to flying.
This incident highlights the public safety issue surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the need for hardcoded safety features in flight systems. Fortunately not all multirotor aircraft require the user to setup safety functionality. Proprietary flight systems like those found on DJI brand aircraft feature hardcoded low-power automatic landing and return-to-pilot safety features. When you open the box of a DJI multirotor aircraft and fly for the first time these safety settings are already setup and ready to leap into action.
Hardcoded and automatically engaged safety features, including a way for the pilot to monitor battery levels, should come standard with all UAV platforms and flight systems. This will prevent accidents caused by pilot error, like losing track of flight time and running out of battery in mid-air or losing control when flying beyond the range of the remote control transmitter. These types of problems account for many multirotor UAV failures, and if flight systems are prepared to address these failures out-of-the-box then there will be fewer crashes.
Although more information is needed to understand why the hexacopter fell in Naivasha, it’s very likely that the proper use of flight system safety features would have prevented the crash.
Ben Kreimer will be in Kenya from the 27th of February 2014 – 27th
of March 2014. We are looking forward to benefit from his experience, knowledge and skills
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.