Is drone journalism for real?

Drone journalism is most certainly for real — just look at the amount of press it’s getting. Note that, at least in the U.S., the discourse is not peripheral — Mr. Obama, the FAA, and other federal groups have recently been releasing statements and iterating legislation. Like many (mostly nongovernmental) participants in the debate, I find the current dichotomous legality between commercial and personal drone usage unacceptable. According to this article, the FAA claims to primarily base their decisions on safety. An eloquent response: “commercial users will be at least as careful as a hobbyist.”

Anyway, as a skeptic of financially motivated institutions (e.g. media corporations, governments, etc.), I am very excited about the increasing ease of access to journalistic equipment. So too am I excited about the individual citizen’s growing ability to self-publish and promote (read: most of us have the ability to post anything we care about to the internet). At risk of becoming tangential, I want to point out that I see drone journalism as a way that local communities can be brought closer together. I am hopeful that this will mitigate the rift that (I argue) many U.S. citizens feel exists between the government and the people. I am hopeful that this will mitigate the information filtering engrained in our team X vs. team Y media-dominated republic.

Whether or not the FAA and other government entities truly base their drone legislation primarily on safety concerns is up in the air and useless to argue about. An arguably more common topic of debate in drone discourse is privacy. Personally I think this is the more interesting conversation and the conversation many, many more people are invested in. I am of the belief that privacy is a cultural construct and that this debate will fade away as my generation comes into power in the near-future. I actually feel comfortable making the blanket statement that those of us who have had access to the internet for the large majority of our lives will agree that the advantages to homebrew journalism and information publication far outweigh the disadvantages. A question: should we sit around waiting for policy-makers born in the 90s and later to change legislation around drone journalism or should we be make demands, petitions, and calls-to-action our priority?

Anyway, here are a couple ideas for projects that we could do over the next few weeks:

1. Hang out with kids in low-income areas and teach them how to use the drones. See what their first reactions are — what would they film? At first I imagine they will do silly things, like all of us. But after a bit I’m sure more interesting ideas will start taking shape in their heads. One of the beautiful aspects of drone journalism that members of the public can document what is important to them. Often the things important to lower-income people are overlooked in mainstream media.

2. A simple quirky idea for a data study: frame by frame, what colors do people wear most? Maybe do it on a day by day basis, making sure to collect metadata. Do we see trends in

-color vs. day of the week

-color vs. temperature

-color vs. weather

-color vs. location in nyc

Really I’m thinking about the kinds of data we can gather about humans from above. I much prefer the first idea since I see it as socially beneficial.

Gov Island Trip #2

Tomorrow morning our team (Daniel, Pia, and I) will be heading out to Governors Island again after our first trip didn’t quite work out. While we got a little flying time last Monday, we couldn’t get the camera paired with the wireless extender, or with the apps on our phones. There was a lot of trial and error, but after class Ben discovered that the QR code on the box of the respective Phantom itself needed to be scanned with the phone that wanted to be used with the Phantom. Also, we learned that the wireless extenders are specific to a Phantom, so now everything is labeled appropriately.

As for our goals for tomorrow: We’ll be headed back out to the western side of the island where we’ll be filming the new park. Lexi will direct us as to where specifically we’ll be able to shoot (as long as it doesn’t interfere with ongoing construction) and give us recommendations for any other places on the island that would be visually appealing. Our ultimate goal is to get multiple sweeping shots of the park from different heights/perspectives.

Additionally, we’ll be interviewing Elizabeth Rapuano, GI’s director of communications. We’ll try to keep it to about 30 minutes and use her responses between shots of the park/island. She’d also mentioned there may be other people we could interview, but couldn’t confirm their availability until we actually arrived so we’ll play it by ear.  However, Elizabeth’s content alone will be more than satisfactory for our needs.

DJI Controller Hack

DJI Controller Hack

Last week I hacked one of our DJI controllers to work with our new Zenmuse brushless gimbal. I looked around for a good tutorial on how to modify the controller to interop with the new parts, but didn’t find a comprehensive one. Because of that, I tried to document the process, step-by-step, so that others can do it too! Special thanks to Ben Kreimer for all the tips.

This is what you’ll need to get the job done:
-Soldering iron, solder
-Desoldering pump
-Wire clipper/plier combo
-One potentiometer, or other variable resistor if preferred (I could see a slider working well!)
-Small phillips head screwdriver
-Three 6 inch wires, ideally in three different colors
-Hot glue gun, glue cartridges
-Small, sturdy knife

Step 1
Unscrew and separate the controller case into its two parts. Be gentle because the power and ground wires running from the battery connect the two halves of the case and need to be unplugged.
photo 2(1)

Step 2
On the front side of the case, you will see a silver loop between the two sticks for connecting a harness. Unscrew it, and discard or save. We have to remove it to make room for one of the silver, three way toggle switches that we are about to relocate. With your knife, carefully shave away some of the plastic from where the harness loop was housed to make room for the switch.

Step 3
Unscrew one of the three way toggle switches and relocate it to the center hole. photo 1(2)

Step 4
Remove the white plastic slide toggle from the front of the case by sliding your knife under each side and gently prying upward.
photo 1(1)

photo 2(2)

Step 5
On the inside of the case, unscrew and lift the circuit board and flip it around so you can see the underside (the side with the LED).

Step 6
Using the hot soldering iron and desolerding pump, remove the solder from the three pins of the orange, stock potentiometer. The picture below shows the three spots that need to be unsoldered.
photo 4(2)

Step 7
While your soldering iron is hot, solder your replacement potentiometer to your three 6-inch wines. Power, Signal, and Ground. I used Red for power, Blue for signal, and Black for ground. Then, put the potentiometer in the hole that we made by moving the three way toggle switch.
photo 3(3)

Step 8
Solder the other ends of the wires to the circuit board. They must be soldered correctly to Power, Signal, and Ground as shown in the picture below. If the Power and Ground wires are switched, it will work fine, but the direction that the potentiometer controls will be inverted. Choose whichever way you think is more intuitive. Also, if you make a mistake at this stage, you can always unsolder and switch the wires!photo 5(3)

Step 9
Using scissors, cut a half inch sized piece of glue gun cartridge. Make a pile of hot glue on the inside of the case, in the spot mirroring the newly added potentiometer and stick the glue stick piece in it until it has dried. In the picture below, I used a piece of plastic, but anything will work.
photo 2(1) copy

Step 10
Make sure the circuit board and all other parts are in their places, and rescrew case back together (don’t forget to plug the power and ground lines from the battery box back in!). That’s it, you’re done! Make sure to test the modifications before taking the phantom out into the wild!
photo 4(1) copy


originally posted at

Bell Labs Project update 4/14/14

This week, Neil and Pam went back to the Bell Labs with Ben Kreimer and got awesome aerial footage, including going up and over and through the transistor monument, as well as over the main complex.

Neil transcribed the Eric Rosenthal interview, and I transcribed and starting choosing selects for the Jon Gertman interview. Fletcher has been choosing archival footage selects, and Pam has starting doing a mock-up of the site. We’re also planning to get two more interviews. Things are starting to come together!

New Phantom 2 Vision Firmware Comes With No-Fly Zones

Very interesting discovery in class today—we connected the Phantom controller to the PC settings agent and learned that firmware 3.0 is out.

One of the most noteworthy updates: No Fly Zones!

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 5.07.22 PM

There are now firmware-enabled restrictions on where the DJI product can fly. We knew that it would not operate in certain politically sensitive areas (ahem, Tienanmen Square). But now there are safety restrictions in place. The Phantom will not fly within 5 miles of a Class A airport, or .6 miles from a Class B airport. If you wander into one of these zones, mandatory altitude will be enforced.


This is how safety measures will be achieved in civilian UAS—through software limits and autonomous systems. Code is law! Super interesting how cyberlaw considerations (DRM and backdoors) find their way into hobby aircraft space. The analogy pervades.

Update on Gov Island

Pia,and I have joined forces to work together on Governors Island, and Daniel has offered to help as much as he is able. We’ve been in contact with Elizabeth Rapuano, the director of communications for Governors Island, who will be our main point of contact for the project. Our team will continue to develop our script and assign roles for researching the parts of the island we want to shoot, as well as approach individuals we want to interview. Ultimately we’re looking to make about a five minute video.

Our next steps are submitting our proposed dates to Elizabeth and setting out for Governors Island at our first opportunity (weather permitting). Before that we’ll have a working script, confirmed our shot list, and our interview subjects. Additionally, Pia and I will log more flight time to get more comfortable with the Phantom.

Update Storm King

I finally talked to someone at the PR firm that handles all of Storm King press and communication inquiries. She would send our request to the proper contact at Storm King that would review our request. We exchanged emails about the future use of the footage.

I posted a very basic wireframe in Github, as well as a VERY VERY VERY initial HTML shell (still working on the rest of the structure). I developed the script of the website to help figure out the rest. It is also on Github.

I drafted the two paragraphs that will introduce the project. I wrote the questions for David Collens (only five because it will be a very small video). These elements are on the our TitanPad.


Those were the things I need to work on by April 31st.


Project(s) update

The Hart Island project is on hold; I’ve mostly (but not yet entirely) lost hope that it will work out, for reasons I’ll explain in class.

I’m still helping out with (and excited about!) the Bell Labs project. I reached out to Jon Gertner, who literally wrote the Bell Labs book, over break, who was open to an interview; we’ll be interviewing him either this or next Friday (hopefully one date to be confirmed soon). I think he’ll provide some helpful context.

I’ve also become interested in droning the Gowanus Canals, that mysterious area in the very up-and-coming neighborhood that’s recognized as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the U.S. I’m in the process of researching the canal further and establishing an angle. A former colleague who has written on the topic provided some helpful contacts, including that of Gennaro Brooks-Church, who sounds like a fascinating character; I’m envisioning profiles of him and other individuals closely connected to canal conservancy projects woven with drone imagery of the canal itself.