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“Aerojournalism”: it’s about more than just ‘stunning’ photos


Earlier this year, InterDrone invited me to teach a class about “drone journalism.” Then, Jeff Foster of The Drone Coalition asked me to write about drone journalism for his site. It’s an important topic especially in light of the fact that 1 million drones are expected to be sold this Christmas, and inevitably some will be used by journalists or…’citizen journalists’ at least.

So in blog format, here is the class I taught. Do you agree?

Aerojournalism, dronalism, call it what you will — but drone journalism is coming.

It already has in some capacity. Right now it’s in its nascent stages — it’s quite common to see stories on Mashable or Huffington Post showing, “Canadian Rockies Are Magical In Stunning Drone Video” or “Drone Offers Beautiful Views of Massive Flower Garden.” CNN was quite public about its use of a drone to cover the 50th anniversary of Selma (Jon Stewart throws some solid jabs at CNN reporting on the drone, not using the drone to report: watch this video starting at the 4:30 mark.) But one day in our lifetimes, drones are going to becoming so ubiquitous that they will become a news gathering tool alongside a pen, paper, microphone or iPhone.

December 2012: I was in Costa Rica working on a photo essay for my photojournalism degree at the University of Missouri, before what I had hoped would be my last semester of college. But going through my degree requirements, I realized I was going to be one credit short of graduation.

Out in the jungle of Costa Rica, I quite literally stumbled upon a drone journalism class. Between chasing down monkeys to study their nesting patterns, we rested for lunch, and I explained to one of the professors my dilemma.

That professor would be teaching the Missouri School of Journalism’s first-ever drone journalism class, and he said I could audit it for one credit. I had never even heard of drones at the time, but I had no choice — I signed up.

There, we talked about using drones for journalism —the ethics, the legal issues (the law was quite a bit different in January 2013 then it is now in September 2015). We learned how to fly them, practicing in the school’s agriculture arena. And we even fly them a few times — once even covering a prairie fire.

The types of stories that can be shown with drones are endless. Here are the photos that ran in The Guardian and The Washington Post during the 2013 protests in Bangkok, Thailand over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. 28,000 people were there, according to news reports.0304But to really understand what 28,000 people looks like, most people say you would simply have to be there yourself to experience it. That is unless of course, you have a drone. Here’s the photo The Nation ran.

 

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The same goes for stories involving natural disasters. The 37-foot Red River Flood caused destruction in the South, and CNN’s drone footage takes you there.

The drone can show, not tell, important questions like, “what was the scale of this?” It can give a broader perspective.

Aerial photography is certainly not new to journalism. It’s quite common for major TV networks to use helicopters to show traffic, fires or police chases. It’s dangerous to put a person in a flying machine over a fire on a moment’s notice, not to mention costly. Some estimates cost that a helicopter costs $1,300 per hour on average. A drone on the other hand, costs about $1,300 for a one-time fee, and no fee per hour beside the operator’s salary.

There are major roadblocks to drone journalism. The laws keep changing and vary by state and city, so, for any business operating a drone, it’s complicated to know whether something might be legal in one city but not its neighbor. But one thing is clear. Without a Section 333 exemption (which requires the operator to have a pilot’s license), drone use for commercial purposes is 100% illegal.

And that is a huge problem.

Continue reading “Aerojournalism”: it’s about more than just ‘stunning’ photos

No more drones? DJI is bringing ‘drone-like’ video to the ground

This story was originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

The company that has made its name putting cameras in the air is bringing them back to the ground.

DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer, announced today at the London Film Festival a new product called Osmo, which isn’t intended for drones at all. It’s a tiny, hand-held device (what’s known as a “three-axis gimbal” in videography) that integrates with cameras made by DJI and allows for video shot by people on the ground to have the smooth, gliding look of footage shot by an airborne drone. An Osmo costs $649, and also comes with a 4K, 12-megapixel camera.

Here’s how a video would look shot with an Osmo-equipped DJI camera:

“We’re moving into a completely new product sphere,” said Adam Najberg, DJI’s Global Director of Communications.

Najberg says the Osmo isn’t intended to directly compete with GoPro GPRO, -2.51% though there are similar use cases. Like a GoPro, its accessory options include a tripod, bike mount and extension arm — for filming action sports or taking video selfies. But, unlike a GoPro camera, the Osmo doesn’t stream video live, it’s not waterproof, and it doesn’t have GoPro’s durability.MW-DW009_osmo_2_20151007211743_ZH

Read the rest of this story here.

Drone Girl profiles: Eileen Shipley, the woman who is mapping the Wild West with a drone

The next in our series of Drone Girl profiles is with Eileen Shibley, the founder of Monarch Inc.

Monarch just launched a project to aerially survey and 3D map the 19th-century mining town of Bodie, California, and original California Gold Rush town that was the vibrant gem of the Wild West and now is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay.’ Monarch used high precision UAVs to help preserve data about the historic town, using the company’s custom-built drone and 3D-printed gimbal.

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Courtesy Monarch Inc.

Drone Girl: How did you get into drones?

Eileen Shibley: 5 or 7 years before I retired from defense, I was selected to run the unmanned systems division at the navy’s premiere manufacturing site for drone integration in defense. We worked with every size drone – from teeny ones to the Predator. That’s when I became aware that I had devoted my career to defense, but when I retired I truly wanted to make a difference. I thought, I know what these things are capable of.  I know these things can make a huge difference win the way we do things.

DG: And then?

ES: I led the California delegation to try to get California named as (one of the six drone) test sites. I was barely retired and I was asked to lead this delegation. I thought I should give something back since I’ve gotten so much from this community. When we weren’t selected, I figured, what am I going to do now?

DG: So now you’re mapping the old western town of Bodie.

ES: Bodie Stegosaurus Park — it was one of those thriving places in the 1880s. It became a huge thriving metropolis in no time at all. But now it’s old, it’s decaying. The state has made it a state park and they’re trying to preserve it. They put a request in to the FAA that Monarch be allowed to take our drone to Bodie and map it for them.

Courtesy Monarch Inc.
Courtesy Monarch Inc.

DG: So how did they find you? Continue reading Drone Girl profiles: Eileen Shipley, the woman who is mapping the Wild West with a drone

Behold, the rise of the drone film festival

This is an excerpt of a piece originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire thing here.

It seems like just about everyone in San Francisco has had a drone for a few years now, including this guy who proposed to his future-fiancee in Alamo Square.

And now, San Francisco is getting its first-ever drone film festival.

The Flying Robot international Film Festival is accepting submissions through Sept. 15 of short films less than five-minutes long, where aerial footage is central to the narrative.

“I had the idea for a drone film festival after witnessing the rise of so much epic aerial filmmaking over the past few years,” the festival’s creator, Eddie Codel, wrote on his website.

“Now that consumer camera drones are readily available and fairly inexpensive, we’re seeing a huge uptick in aerial cinema on YouTube and Vimeo. I want to highlight the best stuff out there and really encourage filmmakers to take it to the next level.”

Categories include “Cinematic,” “Aerial Sports,” “Drones for Good,” and “Student Film.” The winning films will be screened on Nov. 19 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Read the rest of this story here.

This ‘airborne pet’ drone flies on a leash

This is an excerpt of an article written by Drone Girl for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

When a two-pound toy drone crashed on the White House grounds in early 2015, the nation went into a frenzy over legal and safety issues surrounding drones.

President Barack Obama called for greater regulation of drones, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer brought up the specter of al Qaeda-manned drones, and the drone-maker itself installed a firmware update that prevents its drones from flying near the White House.

But one company’s potential technological solution seems completely contradictory to the purpose of drones: Putting them on a leash.

_MG_9426Zurich-based robotics company Perspectives Robotics AG plans to announce Tuesday the Fotokite Phi, a $349, consumer-grade “tethered flying camera.”

The drone flies itself on the end of a tether, controlled by simple gestures of the controller.

Perspectives Robotics is known for creating Fotokite Pro, a $10,000 drone that uses a tether to provide an unlimited power supply from the ground. Its users include journalists from the BBC. Now the company is targeting hobbyists looking for a small, portable drone to bring on hikes or to picnics.

“With the broadcast version, you’re looking at high-quality video,” founder Sergei Lupashin said. “With this, you’re looking at affordability and making them accessible.”

_MG_9425The Fotokite Phi is the only consumer drone on the market that doesn’t rely on remote piloting or GPS. Instead, the user points the leash in the direction they want to go and the drone follows.

“It’s a cross between an airborne pet and a steadicam in the sky,” Lupashin said.

At 12 ounces, it’s the lightest GoPro-carrying quadcopter on the market, and it folds into a compact carrying case about the size of a two-liter soda bottle. The leash extends 26 feet, which is about two and a half stories high.

Read the rest of this story on MarketWatch.com.

Yuneec’s Q500 Typhoon might be the best consumer drone out there yet

q500 typhoon

There’s a newcomer on the consumer drone market, and it’s already a contender for gold.

Yuneec’s Typhoon Q500 4K is a newbie to the drone market, but you wouldn’t know based on the maturity of the copter.

The Typhoon (starting at $1,299) does it all — shoots 4K video on a smooth, 3-axis gimbal with video streamed through the RC transmitter to allow for first-person view flying.

The attention to detail on Yuneec’s drone is fantastic; a SteadyGrip hand-held device allows users to take handheld shots with the camera, there’s a “FollowMe” mode, and it comes with two batteries — a clear sign that the drone’s maker has the user in mind rather than trying to skimp on costs.

The drone is mostly ready to fly out of the box — just screw on the propellers, charge the batteries and you’re good to go. It carries beautifully — the flight is smooth and steady, not to mention it just looks elegant in the air.

RC Transmitter

The RC transmitter (what Yuneec calls a ‘Personal Ground Station’) really takes it to the next level by providing first-person view on the transmitter. To start with the bad news, the controller does look complicated — too complicated. There’s something beautiful about the sleek simplicity of DJI’s controllers. But for the good news, the controller is also the reason I loved this copter so much.  Powered by Android, the Personal Ground Station displays the camera’s video feed on a screen, eliminating the need to hook up your tablet or smartphone. The screen on the transmitter also helps guide pilots through changing settings on the camera or the flight mode.

The Video Quality

The camera captures:

  • 4K/30fps ultra high definition video
  • 1080p/120fps slow motion video
  • 12 megapixel photos with No-Distortion Lens

The RC transmitter allows pilots to control video resolution, white balance and light exposure during the flight. The camera offers a 115° field of view, allowing you to control whether the camera points straight ahead or downward. The camera isn’t perfect; I did experience some lens aberration when the camera pointed directly into the sun (see test footage video), but it wasn’t a huge issue. The camera can also record stills simultaneously while shooting video with the click of a button.

Here’s some test footage I put together while taking my drone out to test during a weekend trip to the American River (for review purposes, this video was not color corrected to show how the video quality looks directly from camera to computer):

The colors are not quite right — you can especially tell this in the scene facing downwards with the yellowish rocks on the water. The rocks and people are washed out, while the water appears too dark, a sign of too much contrast. The camera lacks the ability to see details on the ground, but in general, it’s smooth video perfect for consumer purposes.

The verdict?

The Yuneec Q500 Typhoon really is an incredible piece of equipment. Where DJI’s Phantom is the Mini Cooper (it’s cute, easy to fly, small, dare I say, even lovable), the Typhoon is a BMW — sleek, strong, powerful, gorgeous.

I can’t tell if the Yuneec is intended to be a competitor to the DJI Phantom or the Inspire, but it’s certainly a competitor to both in some capacity.

It’s priced nearly the same as the Phantom 3 Professional, and its specs are quite similar. But the Typhoon comes with a bonus of a full Personal Ground Station and two batteries (buying a second battery for the Phantom 3 will cost you $149).

Unlike the Inspire ($3,399), the drone doesn’t allow dual pilot operation, so my shots weren’t as good as they likely could have been had someone else been controlling the camera. It also doesn’t have the Inspires’ HDMI output, so users wouldn’t be able to record the live feed to a video capture device. But like the Inspire, the Typhoon offers a detachable payload, high-quality flight performance and a slick design that doesn’t resemble a toy a la the Phantom.

The Typhoon offers a wealth of features that – for the cost – may make it the best drone on the market yet. The camera could be slightly improved, but the design of the drone and attention to detail far outweigh the slight problems with the camera. I’m shocked by how low the drone costs compared to its competitors, and how far the technology has come in just a few years. I’m eager to see just what a possible Typhoon 2 or other Yuneec-made drone will be capable of doing.

The drone market is desperately in need of competition. DJI makes great copters, but they are Goliath in a market of very few Davids. Yuneec is a huge underdog; their name is largely unheard of against DJI or drones like the yet-to-hit-stores Lily, that survives solely off huge marketing hype. And then there’s this Typhoon, a greatly underrated copter that you can buy now. With a marketing push from Yuneec to become a household name the way the Phantom is, the drone market may finally have two Goliaths.

Related posts:

Parrot Bebop: Here’s a drone with first-person video that costs less than $500

The Parrot Bebop drone flying around the UC Berkeley campus
The Parrot Bebop drone flying around the UC Berkeley campus

All my friends who know The Drone Girl exists: “Hey Sally, I’ve been seeing drones everywhere lately! I want to buy one! Which should I buy?”

Me (Drone Girl): “What’s your budget? Including camera?”

Friend: “Under $500.”

This is the dreaded question. And I get it way too often.

Well, it was a dreaded question, until I took the Parrot Bebop drone for a spin myself. Continue reading Parrot Bebop: Here’s a drone with first-person video that costs less than $500

Sony’s drones will have a different mission

MW-DQ618_sony_d_20150722165551_ZH-1This excerpt comes from an article originally written by Sally French for MarketWatch.com. Read the full story here.

Sony is the latest company to get into drones, but not in the way that you would expect.

The company likely won’t use drones to film its upcoming emoji movie, and they probably won’t go the route of GoPro in introducing a quadcopter drone.

Instead, Sony’s drones will look for data.

Sony Mobile Communications Inc. SNE, -0.25% announced Wednesday it is collaborating with Japanese robotics firm ZMP Inc. to develop and launch autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles for image capture combined with cloud-based data processing. The two companies are jointly founding and owning Aerosense Inc., which will use data from drones for measuring, surveying, observing and inspecting.

That means a farmer may use Aerosense to monitor discoloration in her crops, or an insurance company could use drones to inspect a building.

“Sony Mobile is proactively engaging in new business creation initiatives, with a particular focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) sector,” according to a Sony news release. “This joint venture represents a part of this push into IoT, as Sony strives to provide its customers with additional value by developing and managing total package cloud solutions.”

A Sony spokesman told The Wall Street Journal it would sell services using drones, but not the drones themselves.

“Aerosense devices will be equipped with Sony image sensors, a core product for the company used in Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Samsung Electronic Co.’s Galaxy,” the Journal reported.

For all the fear surrounding drones mounted with guns or skepticism about whether Amazon’s delivery drones would really work, it seems that using drones for data may be the future.

“If drones are going to change our society in the very near future, it won’t be because we got our Kleenex delivered from the air instead of by truck,” New American field analyst Faine Greenwood wrote in an article on Slate. “It will be because they democratized access to information.”

Read the rest of this article on MarketWatch.com.