9 drone applications for video reporters and journalists

Drone journalism logs

Media love drones: they are cheap, easy to employ, quick to cover distances, and more versatile than a cameraman, dolly or helicopter.

These are 9 popular drone applications for video reporting:

1. demonstrations, protests, riots

Drones will become regular occupants of the sky above urban conflicts, demonstrations, and protests, especially since journalist Tim Pool and others used them during the occupy protests in 2012.

Three groups will use the drone:

Demonstrators, to show their side of the story, or as propaganda for their supporters. And probably also from a strategic perspective: to have eyes on the movements of the riot police.

The police, in turn, uses the drone strategically and to gather evidence.

Media, ideally, are present as detached observers. They can use the drone footage to supplement their (video) report from the ground.

The scale of a protest

The drone offers a wider perspective to a protest. And that may result in more accurate reporting. Protests in the Middle East, for example, are reported rather one-sided, according to Joris Luyendijk in his book Hello Everybody. He describes how a small group of protesters is burning a flag in front of a photographer. As soon as the picture is taken, everybody stops and goes his way. The photo, meanwhile, goes viral, leaving the impression of mass demonstrations. Drone footage provides a bird’s eye view of an event. To the eye in the sky, a small group of protesters will be just a small group. In addition to that, the footage can finally settle the dispute between demonstrators and authorities on the turnout of a demonstration. It’s a matter of counting heads in the picture.

Read also: Every future protest needs a drone

2. Disasters

During disasters, people want to be informed quick and complete. Drones can gain access to places otherwise hard or dangerous to reach. And they offer a survey of the surroundings. That makes them the perfect tools for reporting disasters. Of course, emergency workers should be prioritised, and media will have to work shoulder to shoulder (let’s frame it positively; the media as fellow service providers) with them. British photographer Lewis Whyld told The New York Times that his motivation to use a drone in the aftermath of a typhoon in Tacloban was to get out of the way of emergency workers.

 Read also: How to explore Chernobyl’s nuclear zone

3. War zones

News drones will be used by war correspondents to access areas that are otherwise too dangerous. Think: front line, sniper alley, minefields. The war correspondent can use the drone:

  1. To gather data, using sensors (for example to find out if certain (toxic) weapons are used) and cameras.
  2. To explore the surroundings, before personally proceeding on the ground. As an extra security measure.
  3. In addition to existing video footage.
  4. To make a piece-to-camera, with the drone replacing the camera on a tripod.

However, there are some remarks, before adding the drone to a war reporter’s kit. Marc Corcoran mentions that ‘a small drones, flying low and slow’ (and they do, if the purpose is shooting video), is an easy target in hostile territory, and ‘would not survive long’1. Alexandra Gibbs of the University of British Columbia warns for gamification: the effect that journalists forget the human aspect, while flying around with drones, as if they are playing a video game2. Opposers of drone war reporting argue that the use of drones results in war-porn. Some argue that UAVs will make war reporting less dangerous, but that is still the question, as argued in the DND case study on drone reporting at Donetsk Airport.

Read also: Donetsk Airport shows: War reporters now need drones

4. Local News

Traffic accidents and queues, fires, road working, events and sports can all be covered better if drones are more regularly used by local journalists and citizen journalists. Of course, this means that they need a clear understanding with local authorities and the (aviation) police. Local governments could consider issuing drone press cards, to ease the journalist’s work.

Read also: This local news reporter deliberately flies without a permit.

5. Sports

Sports reporting will benefit hugely from drones, especially with the outdoor sports that cover larger geographical areas. A drone can cover more angles than a cameraman or a dolly. It is cheaper than a helicopter and can get closer to the athletes3. The Atlantic journalist Rachel Feltman claims the future of sports photography is in drones. Drones can already automatically follow persons, see for example startups like the Airdog, the Hexo+ or Perceptiv’s Shift. This is ideal for a number of competitive outdoor sports, like (mountain) biking, swimming or running.

Sport organisers may want to consider a protocol for the use of drones and/ or make clear what routes the drone can fly, and where they cannot. It is already possible to program GPS based no-fly zones. GPS technology will be indispensable in the future of sports drone reporting, as then a flight zone can be established, and a clear no-fly zone, based on the track and the position of the audience.

Without such measures, drones may be banned from sports events. they can cause severe injuries, after all – as happened in Australia during a triathlon.

During the Winter Games in Sochi, 2013, a drone was seen during the skiing (watch for the shadow). This wasn’t one of the Russian Security drones, also flying during the same Olympics.

6. Events and Festivals

The use of drones above festivals has become quite popular. There is no professional drone yet safe enough to fly above a crowd. So most festival organisations have banned the use of drones by festival goers. But even if drones one day will become safe enough, it is unlikely that they will become mainstream at festivals, as they can still hinder artists and attractions and can even be flown onto the festival terrain from outside. So it is likely that festival owners will plea for a (government controlled) no-fly zone.

On the other hand, the cinematographic images of a drone will definitely fire the imagination, so festival organisations might be interested in hiring a drone pilot or media company to shoot footage for them.

The organisation of the American Burning Man Festival, composed Festival guidelines for drone usage, that could very well become a blueprint for other festivals.

7. Nature & animal life

A new perspective on nature and animal life seems to unfold through the eye in the sky. The drone can fly to inaccessible areas, like the mouth of an active volcano or ice caves.

 

Hovering allows drones to get close to the surface while filming, without causing too much wind (like a helicopter would). That has already resulted in many cinematographic views on nature, like the video of humpback whales in Matafonua Ha’apai Tonga.

 

Disturbing nature with noisy drones

Nature photographers should take into consideration that flying a drone is prohibited in some national parks, and can lead to high fines. Furthermore, animal life can be disturbed by the drone’s presence, as visible in these Youtube virals.

8. Data journalism

The data gathered by drone (by video or any other sensor) can be used for investigative journalism. This would require journalists to adopt a more scientific approach to their reporting job.

Further reading: DND interview with drone professor Matt Waite.

9. Crime reporting

Drone footage can be used for 3D rendering, and that makes it a tool to reconstruct a crime scene. Another application in this field is in environmental journalism, for example, this project by the American activist-journalist Will Potter, who is tracking chemical toxic waste in the agricultural industry. Some TV-reporters may want to use a drone to capturing criminal acts from a (safe) distance, follow swindlers or reveal wroingdoings. The illegal growth of weed, for example, could be tracked by using thermal sensors.

The Golden Raspberry of drone video reporting goes to:

Paparazzi journalism. No doubt Peeping Tom Airborne will be in the news for many more days to come. There are many applications of drones in video reporting. Spying on celebrities is one of them. Just to be clear, this is not journalism4.

 

Do you miss an application, please leave your reply!

  1. Corcoran, M. Drone journalism: News gathering applications of UAVs in covering conflict, civil unrest and disaster (pdf)
  2. Gibb, A.S. 2013. Droning the story. University of British Columbia
  3. especially once drones have sensors to avoid humans and objects
  4. If you want to know what journalism is, read The ten elements of journalism by Kovach and Rosenstiel. Or at least, check out their ten commandments

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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