Al Jazeera’s Listening Post feature this week takes a look at drones and how they are becoming tools of the journalistic trade.
“More and more news stories, particularly those on television, now include video shot by drones,” the latest update on Al Jazeera’s Listening Post page states. “Listening Post’s Will Yong reports on the potential – and some of the pitfalls – of the media’s unmanned eyes in the skies.”
You can listen to me, Sally (aka Drone Girl), talk drone journalism alongside our friend Matthew Schroyer, founder of DroneJournalism.org on the latest Listening Post episode here.
It seems as though spying or crashing is no longer what dronies should be cautious of.
Hacker Samy Kamkar released hardware and software specifications that hobbyists can use to turn their drone into a drone that seeks out other drones in flight, hacks them and turns them into an army of unmanned vehicles, all under control of the hacker.
Shooting Amazon drones down with a shotgun to steal your packages? So last year.
Taking control of the Amazon drone to get it to bring the package to your house and not the intended recipient? That’s this year. Like, right now.
“Using a Parrot AR.Drone 2, a Raspberry Pi, a USB battery, an Alfa AWUS036H wireless transmitter, aircrack-ng, node-ar-drone, node.js, and my SkyJack software, I developed a drone that flies around, seeks the wireless signal of any other drone in the area, forcefully disconnects the wireless connection of the true owner of the target drone, then authenticates with the target drone pretending to be its owner, then feeds commands to it and all other possessed zombie drones at my will,” Kamkar wrote on his site.
Amazon drones could be flying through the sky delivering your purchases in fewer than 30 minutes. And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says they will — in the next few years.
“One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” the company said. Drones are not quite ‘normal’ yet, but they aren’t completely out of the realm of possibilities. Drones are already being used to gather aerial images of farmland to help farmers increase efficiency, to spot poachers in Africa or to deliver medicine to hard-to-reach places in the world, things companies like Airware and Matternet already do.
“I know this looks like science fiction, it’s not,” said Bezos.
The drone delivery is contingent upon FAA regulation of UAVs, which is still yet to be determined, but is expected to happen in 2015.
“This is early, this is still years away,” Bezos said.
Amazon currently has 96 massive warehouses, or “fulfillment centers”
86% of Amazon’s packages are less than 5 pounds
More than 300 packages are ordered a second on Amazon during Cyber Monday
Tons of media outlets are out there reporting on Amazon’s huge announcement — delivering packages via drone. Here’s a roundup of some stories out there:
Drone Girl likes to periodically profile awesome drone users. Meet Davis Hunt! He’s a pilot, but he also flies drones! He’s also the owner of ViewPoint Aviation in Boston, Massachusetts.
Drone Girl: What’s your background, and how did you get into drones?
Davis Hunt: I’ve been an aviation enthusiast since I was a kid. I got my Private Pilot certificate when I was 17, Instrument rating at 19, Commercial rating at 20, and put myself through undergrad working as a CFI. I love flying and the aviation community. My professional background is in commercial aviation. Given the cost structure of flying, with fuel prices north of $5 a gallon, I wanted to explore platforms that would allow for more competitive, affordable structure and really get creative with it. . I had seen several videos posted using UAV’s, specifically a professional-grade octo-copter. I was captivated by the idea, but wasn’t crazy about investing $15,000 – $20,000. Finally, I heard about the DJI Phantom. I was so impressed by the build quality and technology, I bought two. Currently, they don’t have names yet, but I think everything that flies should be named. Have to work on that….
DG: You’re a pilot; does that change the way you approach flying drones? Or is flying a drone different than piloting a plane?
DH: My drone flying practices are definitely heavily influenced by flying aircraft. Aviation is filled with many sayings and wisdom; one of those being “flying isn’t inherently dangerous, it’s just unforgiving”. While flying a drone doesn’t have the same immediate safety risks, it does have other risks. It’s imperative to establish safe operating principles and procedures. Extreme caution must be exercised, especially when operating near crowds. At the end of the day, safe habits and safe operation will better allow for the incorporation of drones into useful roles, while not filling the headlines with stories of accidents or incidents that make the public fearful.
DG: What is the most interesting thing you’ve photographed with a drone?
DH: A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do some flying at the Quabbin Reservoir, about an hour west of Boston. In 1938, due to the water supply demands of Boston, a decision was made to form the reservoir. Four towns, which are under the lake were “disincorporated”, all the residents forced to move, and the towns were flooded and since have been underwater since.
DG: You fly a DJI Phantom. How did you choose that copter? Why do you like it, and/or is there something you would change about it?
DH: By far and away, most features and technology for the money. In terms of improving, make the firmware for Mac users! I would imagine a large percentage of DJI’s customers are Mac users. It’s annoying to have to use a parallel to update the firmware. As far as the Phantom itself, payload and battery life are the valuable commodities. Both are completely usable as is, but hey, if it’s a wish list….
DG: What are your thoughts on integrating UAVs into the national airspace system?
DH: It’s not often technology puts government in a position where there is truly a policy vacuum. Without getting too deeply into the merits of the FAA’s Roadmap, I’ll make a few points.
The FAA currently defines “small UAV’s” as 55 lbs or less and recognizes that 95% of all UAV’s will fit into this category. For this system to not place an unfair burden on operators of smaller UAV’s, like the Phantom, this category MUST be sub-divided to reflect risk, range, type of operation, and capabilities of the UAV.
There needs to be a separate category for operators who don’t exceed 500ft and don’t operate outside of line-of-sight and furthermore, over-the-horizon. Realizing this would affect some FPV operators, maybe specify a range if outside of LOS.
While I’m not opposed to the idea of the test sites, the wrong thing is being tested. As with anything in life, a device is only as safe as the person operating it. There should be a practical demonstration test for operators, baseline operating specifications, and practical test standards, similar to with airmen certification process. The practice of flying ANYTHING over people’s heads is a serious business. While I don’t want to see operators have an unobtainable or cost prohibitive barrier to entry, I think there must be some serious-minded commitment to safety. Flying a drone can be incredibly enjoyable. I want to see people be able to enjoy flying drones on both a private and commercial level, I just want to see both done responsibly. Translating that into a policies will be a challenge.
DG: What’s in your future?
DH: I plan to continue to operate the Phantom’s, and eventually, larger platforms for both personal and transitioning to commercial basis as regulations become further defined. This is a very exciting time to be involved with drones and UAV’s. . From a commercial basis, UAV’s have shown tremendous demand from the residential and commercial real estate markets, from golf courses and resorts, sporting events and special events, agriculture, and I’m sure other things we haven’t even thought of yet.
There are tons of great Dronies out there, and you should get to know them! Here are 7 Dronies you should follow on Twitter.
Missy Cummings: Nobody understands drone technology like Missy Cummings. As one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy and now a professor at MIT, she’s an expert on drone use. She always has constructive viewpoints on drones in the military as well as mediums such as farming. She’s thought out safety and surveillance implications. Also she’s an awesome female role model. Am I a fangirl? Of course! @Missy_Cummings
@Elevated Element: This is the account to follow if you want to see art made by drones (granted they are all pictures of Baltimore). The tweets behind it are a husband and wife duo who photograph their city. Beyond that, they also have smart commentary on law, ethics, STEM education and more. @ElevatedElement
Drone Conference: This seems to be the mega-super drone conference to date. It just happens, and boy am I bummed I missed it. Luckily, their thorough Twitter account made me feel like I’m there! This account includes a range of dialogue from policy to engineering to activism. @DroneConference
Matt Waite: He’s a professor at the University of Nebraska and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. He’s probably among the first to even consider drone use in journalism. Never mind that he’s a University of Nebraska professor and therefore a Cornhusker (I’m a proud Mizzou Tiger from a rival, and obivously better j-school, kidding, but really). He’s brilliant and paving the way for drone journalism, and I’d sure like to take a journalism class from this brilliant professor. @mattwaite
Drones4Good: Whenever I’m looking for a new, creative use for a drone, I look here! Drones have definitely been used for bad things, but this account highlights the positive things drones do. Saving salmon? Check. Tracking poachers? Check. Mapping the Matterhorn? Now that’s just crazy awesome. Good thing we have this Twitter account to track it all. @Drones4Good
Oh, and if you don’t follow me, you should definitely consider it. Or don’t even stop to consider it. Just do it! Right here: @thedronegirl.
Below is an excerpt from a story I originally wrote for 3D Robotics. I also directed and produced the accompanying video. Note: this project was completely unaffiliated with Drone Girl; I’m simply reposting it here on the blog.
Vigneron Paul Sloan spends a lot of time walking up and down his vineyards.
He walks every vineyard that he farms once week — all 14 of them. He sometimes walks them 2-3 times a week depending on how critical decisions are. Those are issues like irrigation leaks, color variation, or pests like nematodes.
Sloan, a winemaker and viticulturist at Small Vines Wines, still intends to walk through his vineyards, but he now aims to walk with more intention.
By using a drone manufactured by 3D Robotics, Sloan can use aerial images captured by a camera mounted to the drone which pinpoint areas in his vineyard that need more attention.
“If you flew before you walked, you could use that image to take you to specific places that could be of concern,” he said. “This might be able to help us show where the hot spots are, where the critical areas are.”
Those critical areas are places where water pressure isn’t high enough or irrigation lines are broken. Sloan can spot where those issues are with aerial images based on color difference, growth patterns or size.
“More yellowish leaves versus bright green leaves would give you bigger variation,” Sloan said. “Less vigorous would tend to be more yellow in color — you could tell it has less nitrogen.”
From looking at the images, Sloan could physically walk those targeted areas to decide what the issue is.
“It’s not going to prevent you from being in your vineyard,” he said. “It’s just going to give you a more targeted reason for being in your vineyard.”
Kevin Lajoie‘s has been using a kite and 30-foot carbon fiber fishing pole to do aerial photography since 2008.
But his latest tool has no strings attached. Lajoie changed up his aerial photography technique after he received a quadcopter in March.
Lajoie is now in the midst of a year-long, photo-a-day challenge, which Lajoie is in the midst of right now. (Check out the photos lining this post, which have all been taken by Lajoie).
So far, he captured photos via a kite throughout the winter in Guernsey, documenting their second coolest on recording, including two separate snowfalls, a blizzard, and the airport getting shut down for three days.
When the snow ended, so his drone piloting began. Lajoie received a DJI Phantom drone in March, allowing him to get to places he would have to wait for specific winds with kites.
Here are some of Lajoie’s tips for flying and aerial photography:
Coastal locations are my usual preference simply because they are the most interesting.
Don’t fly near airports.
Be careful flying around areas with more human traffic around.
Avoid flying near people by using the summer months to get out early and use the longer days to your advantage.
Lajoie is currently in the Channel Islands, where he has photographed in Jersey, Alderney and Herm. He said he hopes to photograph the last main Channel Island of Sark before the year ends.
Lajoie’s aeiral photography by the numbers (so far):
Logged 104 KAP (Kite Aerial Photography) sessions
Logged 25 PAP (Pole Aerial Photography) sessions
Photographed at 314 with the Phantom
Flown approximately 400 times
18,000 shutter actuations logged this year on his Nikon D5000
Took 11,000 pictures in 8 hours during one trip to Alderney in May and 7 flights with the Phantom, yielding 3000 images
Also uses GoPros and a Canon S100 Powershot
What’s next for Lajoie? He’ll be taking a ferry to France for an international Kite Aerial Photography Conference, where the CVCF (cerf-volant club de france) will be hosting a meet up to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first recognized kite aerial photograph taken by Artur Batut.