Drones go to Journalism School — Universities experiment with UAVs

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab and the Missouri Drone Journalism Program at the University of Missouri are two programs teaching journalism students the basics of flying unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), using still and video cameras to gather aerial information, the ethics of operating flying cameras, FAA regulations and safety, and how to interpret aerial footage. The goal is to turn information gathered from the air into workable stories.

Both programs are experimental, but operate in different ways. The Nebraska Lab is integrated into the university’s college of Journalism and Mass Communications, and serves as a stand-alone proof-of-concept learning lab. “In short, drones are an ideal platform for journalism,” according to the lab’s mission statement online.

However, the Missouri Program is a partnership between the university’s Journalism School, Information Technology program, and a local NPR affiliate KBIA. While Nebraska’s project has been going on since late 2011, Missouri’s drone journalism effort launched in 2013. The NPR affiliate secured a $25,000 grant for the university to build custom drones.

One story published by the University of Nebraska program used drones to document an ongoing drought. The University’s drone lab NIMBUS provided several UAVs to the journalists to explore the story. “We turned all flight operations over to Carrick Detweiler, a professor of computer science at UNL and cofounder of the NIMBUS Lab. He flew the lab’s Ascending Technologies Falcon 8 UAV, a $25,000 aircraft with eight rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera on the front. Detweiler had experience with the vehicle and with flying it,” commented Matthew Waite of the Drone Journalism Lab.

“We talked about what we wanted to see from the air before going up and we left Detweiler to fly the UAV. That’s an important point. The pilot of the UAV is responsible for the safety of the vehicle and anyone around it. So the pilot needs to be left alone to fly, not take over-here-now-over-here directions from a journalist. During battery changes, we talked briefly about what we were getting, and that was it.”

Once footage was compiled, the finished video was used to portray a record-breaking drought in their home state of Nebraska. The journalists also experimented with a homemade tool: a scientific data-gathering UAV. Another UAV, the Ascending Technologies Hummingbird, was equipped with an improvised rig of dowels, electrical tape, and a glass ampule to acquire a water sample. The drone successfully acquired testable water samples from the Platte River. Video from the finished story is shown below.

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