All posts by Sally French

My story: why I believe drones can assist with journalism

Photo of Sally French, aka "Drone Girl" by Stuart Palley
Photo of Sally French, aka “Drone Girl” by Stuart Palley

The post below is an excerpt of a piece I freelanced for Investigative Reporters and Editors on Drone Journalism. You can read the piece in its entirety for free online here.

When I told my parents I was using my graduation money to buy a drone, they thought I was crazy.

“Why don’t you buy some camera gear instead?” they told me.

After all, graduating in May with a photojournalism degree means I’d no longer have access to the fancy Missouri j-school equipment locker I’d been spoiled by for the past few years.

But what my parents didn’t understand is that a drone is the ultimate in camera gear.

Imagine airing video about weather patterns impacting geese migration. The live-shot could actually take the viewer flying among the birds. Or how about reporting on a prairie fire? An overhead shot could reveal the path of the fire.

I’ve already done both of those myself through theMissouri School of Journalism’s drone journalism program. I was a member of the program in its first year. The laws and regulations are unclear, and none of us were very technical when it came to maintenance, so most of a time we didn’t know what we were doing. But that’s a good thing. The cool thing about pioneering something like a drone research program in a university setting is we could learn about this stunning new technology, yet we didn’t have the pressure of deadlines or financial limitations that a traditional media outlet would have.

And we thought what we were doing was legal, since we weren’t making a profit from it. Turns out, the FAA thought otherwise, as it recently sent a letter requiring the program to cease outdoor flight. I’m sure the FAA has the best intentions – after all, a drone recently fell into a crowd at a bull run, and another drone hit a groom during a wedding photography session. There certainly is a need for regulation.

But drones are here to stay, and people will continue flying — regulated or not.

Read the rest of this post over at the Investigative Reporters and Editors blog.

CNN producer, first national network drone journalist speaks on legality of drone use

Freelance photojournalist and former CNN producer in 2012  with a prototype of drone he developed called the Swarm Drone. The drone is designed to go into tornadoes as a safer alternative for storm chasers.
Freelance photojournalist and former CNN producer in 2012 with a prototype of drone he developed called the Swarm Drone. The drone is designed to go into tornadoes as a safer alternative for storm chasers. Photo courtesy of Aaron Brodie

In 2010, an IT employee at CNN went to the mall and bought his son a Parrot AR.Drone as a Christmas present.

That drone, a piece of equipment that’s more toy than tool, would become the first drone to air footage for a major national news network.

The pilot? Aaron Brodie, a producer with at the time, and now a freelance photojournalist and founder of Extreme Journalist, a multimedia storytelling startup

At the time, Brodie didn’t think much of the drone during his conversation with the IT guy. He was too inundated with other work to think about it.

But then the Tuscaloosa tornado happened.

A massive tornado cut a 5.9-mile path of destruction, damaging more than 5,700 structures. As the weather geek in the newsroom (every newsroom has one), Brodie was sent to cover the disaster for a few days.

A few days later, Brodie’s boss sent him back. This time, he was armed with the drone that belonged to their coworker’s son.

“It was a challenge to fly at first, and I didn’t read the instruction manual,” he said. “I started flying it around the newsroom and scared everybody to death flying it inside. I went back to Tuscaloosa and learned to fly in a park there.

Since that model of the Parrot didn’t allow video recording, Brodie “borrowed” (without asking) a GoPro from another department, hurried to Target to buy double-faced tape, stripped the drone down and took the foam protector off so it could carry the weight of the GoPro. Continue reading CNN producer, first national network drone journalist speaks on legality of drone use

Drone footage shows empty Crystal Cove cottages

CrystalCove17 empty, faded, rickety cottages sit on the beach. They’re situated at a prime real estate location, but renovating them would be starting over from scratch.

Neighbors had lived in the cottages since the 1920s and 30s, but after a series of state purchases, plans to build a resort and costly restoration bills, the cottages have remained empty since the residents were evicted in 2001.

This photo, as captured by my drone, shows the state of the cottages today.  The cottages could cost $20 million to repair.

Reporter Nicole Shine at the OC Register outlines the future of Crystal Cove here.

Do’s and Don’ts of first-time drone piloting for photographers

Do: Take drone selfies!!

As more and more people find out I’m a Drone Girl, more photographer people want to get into drones for aerial photography purposes themselves! Drone World is uncharted territory so there is no right way to do something, but here is some Drone Girl advice for where to start.

Don’t invest in a lot initially. You will crash. You might lose it in a tree (true story for a later date). You will lose control of it. Your propellers will break.

Do invest in a cheap drone to get the flying basics down. Piloting these things require intense hand-eye coordination. ‘Yaw left! Roll right!’ What does that stuff even mean? Well you can practice how to control it, and learn all that fancy terminology, on a drone you won’t feel bad breaking, because trust me, you will. How about this lil guy that looks like a UFO, from the Amazon toy section.
And for the record, I still don’t know what yaw left means.

Don’t cheap out when you’re buying the real deal. You can buy cheaper drones that look similar at places like Brookstone, but just know you get what you pay for, and the quality or ability to upgrade camera capabilities probably won’t be a thing.

Do buy a good quality drone. As cliché as it is, you really do get what you pay for when it comes to drones. I’m someone who wants a drone that works out of the box, so I’d recommend something like the 3D Robotics Iris or the DJI Phantom.

Do buy a GoPro. I’m obsessed with them. You can chuck them off buildings and send them underwater, and they’re foolproof. They shoot HD quality video and can connect to your SmartPhone. Fancy! Continue reading Do’s and Don’ts of first-time drone piloting for photographers

Scientist uses drones to count whales

Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.
Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.

Wayne Perryman has spent the past decade developing aerial photographic techniques to count marine mammals. About four years ago, Perryman pick up a new technology – a drone — to better execute his work.

These days, it’s not just video he’s gathering, but whale snot.

“We’re going to build a hexacopter, attach a vacuum to it and fly it over a whale,” he said. “In the breath of a whale are little bits of cells and hormones, and we can look at that composition of air to see what it’s eating, if it’s male or female, or if it’s pregnant.”

With the vacuum bottle, Perryman will be able to remotely send a signal to open up the cover of the bottle when the whale blows up air and close it up again to collect the snot.

I got the pleasure of doing a Q&A with Perryman on his project – a different sort of whale watching. Enjoy!

Drone Girl: How does unmanned aircraft technology benefit your work?
Wayne Perryman: You just can’t get manned aircraft everywhere in the world, and planes are just too expensive. These are really just flying cameras, and they’re amazingly stable.

DG: Why are you using this aircraft to count animals?
WP: You photograph them from the air because humans are lousy at estimating them in groups. From our photos, you can measure their size and shape to get a feeling of their condition. Continue reading Scientist uses drones to count whales

Drone, UAV, or creepy robot bird: What do we call these things?

Photo of me flying at Balboa Island by my flying buddies over at
Photo of me flying at Balboa Island by my flying buddies over at

I’ve been a drone girl for the past few months now, and the one debate hotter than banning/regulating drones is what to call them.
Many people refer to them as drones. And many other people stop me mid-sentence, as soon as the word drone is used.

It’s no secret: drones have a negative connotation, largely because of military implications. However, the drones on this blog, and that are being discussed for FAA regulation, are far from that. These drones are $700 flying, hovering aircrafts where cameras can be attached to gather images from a different viewpoint. They deliver wedding cakes and save rhinos by spotting poachers.

So should we refer to them as the same name as a totally different piece of equipment that has been used for war? Continue reading Drone, UAV, or creepy robot bird: What do we call these things?

#DroneLyfe: Pros and Cons

One of my best friends admits she is slightly repulsed by drones. Supportive, right? But we both agree that drones are compelling, and can be used for both good and bad.

If I had a dollar for every time someone suggested how I could use my drone to spy on or sneak into people’s homes, I would be able to buy a completely new drones. But those are actually awful suggestions, and I’m the first to say that would be horrible if people did that.

With any new technology, there are pros and cons.

*this list does not include attack/military drones, but rather refers to drones on the average consumer market.

Pros Cons
Opportunities for use are endless! Set up a Google news alert with the word drone, and every day you’ll probably get a new story about some scientist or businessperson using drones for a new creative use. Whether it’s spotting pollution in a river or delivering pizza, people are constantly thinking of ways to use drones. Opportunities for use are endless. Would it be incredibly easy to fly over private land and trespass without even hopping over barbed wire and fighting off guard dogs? Yes. You could really easily enter someone’s private property and spy or gather information. But that’s illegal, and all around not cool.
Cheap alternative to helicopters: rather than pay the fuel cost, the pilot fees, etc., a drone can do a similar job for a fraction of the cost. Researchers trying to spot animals or TV stations showing traffic often rely on helicopters, and this could reduce that need Drone pilots don’t have certifications like helicopter pilots (yet): But should they? This is a great debate, and for hobby use, I don’t think a certification is necessary at this point. But if drones are going to be as common as helicopters, there needs to be some degree of regulation so they don’t hit each other, and so only qualified pilots are flying over dense areas like freeways.
Can squeeze into tight spaces: A helicopter can’t fly through forests or into tight alleys. Imagine a car chase. Instead of sending police officers at dangerous speeds through populated areas, a drone could do the same, or at least track the suspect in dense areas like alleys or forests. Definitely creep factor here. It would be easy to hover in a forest or alley, but again,  that’s creepy, so just don’t do it.
Loud and large: This is a good thing, because it makes drones so that you can’t really spy on people. People see a drone and think something along the lines of it being a UFO, and that’s good, because then it helps people be aware of their surroundings. Loud and large: The loud buzz can certainly be annoying, and they can get heavy and cumbersome to transport, but definitely the related pro outweighs the cons here.
New technology: now is the time to research and engineer this product. The more consumers buy them, the more money and suggestions engineers will have to improve them. The technology has faults and is far from perfect – a mix of both equipment and human error. They crash. Maybe a propeller pops off, or the software just crashes. No technology is ever perfect, but it should be pretty close to that before we send these up in the air on a mainstream level.