A fixed-wing drone system for journalism

Developers at DroneJournalism.org are launching a project to build a low-cost aerial photo platform for journalists, using a combination of off-the-shelf radio-control components and open source electronics. Their goal is to develop a small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) for journalists that is powerful, durable, transportable, affordable, upgradeable and supported by a community of experts.

Now one month into the project, development on “JournoDrone One,” or JD-1, is approximately 20 percent complete. DroneJournalism.org is working to secure funding to complete the project by the summer of 2012. The knowledge gained from making and using the drone for aerial photography will allow DroneJournalism.org to bring a similar system to journalists worldwide.

Leading the project is Matthew Schroyer, the founder of DroneJournalism.org, who holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Illinois. Mr. Schroyer has a background in engineering, experience with small, radio-control devices, and experience in using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for data journalism purposes.

“We hope this is the first of many drones that DroneJournalism.org will develop,” he said. “It’s a practical exercise of existing off-the-shelf drone technology, and our first step into a frontier that could greatly expand public knowledge.”

Schroyer currently works on a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Illinois called EnLiST, which offers unique leadership training and professional development for science teachers from grades K-12. There, he performs a variety of duties as a communications specialist and social network analyst. He also leads the newly-founded “Drones for Schools” program, which teaches high school students the core science and engineering concepts associated with drone technology, and uses the same technology that is being pursued by DroneJournalism.org.

Also on the DroneJournalism.org JD-1 development team is Acton Gorton, a graduate student studying emerging trends in data curation at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Gorton is a digital journalist focusing on interactive content creation and web development for community-centric journalism. His interests include pioneering news gathering methods and the subsequent dissemination to the public.

“Now that the price of advanced technology is becoming more affordable, it is becoming practical to pursue the medium of airborne technology and news gathering,” Gorton said.

Part of what Gorton describes as his motivation for involvement in the field of drone journalism is the military involvement with using unmanned aerial vehicles to safely gather information in ways never before possible. A veteran of the armed forces, Gorton spent three years in the 82d Airborne Division as an infantry soldier training to jump from airplanes.

He cautions against the militarization of the skies and says that he worries how the heavy amount of media attention towards militarized UAV technology overseas and recent law enforcement patrols within American borders will send the wrong messages to the public.

“Our skies belong to everyone, not just those with the money and authority to control, much like our wireless airwaves and radio frequencies,” said Gorton. “The sky is a public good, and as we enter into a new generation of technology that allows us to fill the sky with new technology, it is important that as journalists, we do so in a responsible and respectful manner.”

“The people need a drone of their own,” Schroyer added. “This is technology that only governments and militaries previously had access to. We hope to bring high-caliber intelligence directly to the public, while earning the public’s trust at the same time.”

The DroneJournalism.org drone will be flown with the utmost concern to the safety of individuals and property, within the letter and spirit of regulation and law, and will operate with sensitivity to the expectations of privacy of ordinary citizens (both in the legal and ethical context). What DroneJournalism.org learns in its pursuit of drone journalism in regards to regulation, laws and ethics will be published and discussed online for future drone journalists to study.

Through funding from this grant and similar grants, what was previously only possible for large news organizations with ample budgets and news helicopters will be achievable by smaller organizations and independent “backpack journalists.” This development will increase the practical body of knowledge for drone journalism and advance the field of drone journalism, will assist news organizations and independent journalists establish their own drone journalism coverage, and foster even more innovation in journalism.

DroneJournalism.org is the website of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, and home to its Drone Journalism Code of Ethics Wiki. Its mission is to develop the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism. Project JournoDrone advances the organization's mission of developing that framework.

Posted on October 28, 2012 .