Is drone journalism for real? I guess it depends on what “for real” means.

When someone asks whether something is “for real,” under most circumstances I usually take the question to mean not only “does the thing or phenomenon in question truly exist?” but “does it have any permanence?” If something is real in one instant but is gone or transformed into something unrecognizable in the next, the memory of it may be so brief and blurry that it hardly seems like it was real even if logically we knew it was. In the case of drone journalism, there definitely seems to be something going on that is significant enough to warrant its continued existence and evolution, but it is young enough that I am comfortable and unembarrassed to say that I don’t know for sure. We don’t know what will happen legally that may restrict the use of drones for such purposes in the near future. If the restrictions are strict and extensive enough, it may be the thing that kills the field before it ever gets a proper chance to mature. The achievements and mistakes that are made in the coming years are what will determine how the world views drone journalism and whether it will be allowed to become a significant contributor to the constant stream of news we are taking in.

Since there are flying robots that are relatively easy for the public to access, the chances of drone journalism sticking around are much higher than if the resources were less readily available. One thing that comes to mind is the change in filmmaking after affordable video cameras and software such as Final Cut Pro became available. With these tools, it became unnecessary to be a fully trained filmmaker in order to create films. Anyone with enough patience, drive, and talent could make a movie – it wouldn’t necessarily be any good, but it would still exist. You can trace the beginnings of this attitude and the rise of indie movies to when people started abandoning the major studios in favor of more control over their work. Certain filmmakers preferred to have more control and fewer resources to having to obey the commands of the studios even though they might have a much nicer resources. Having access to the tools means freedom.

Like any piece of technology, there is the opportunity for both good and evil here. Journalism at its best is all about discovering and exposing the truth, but what happens when that “ultimate truth” someone is seeking involves stalking someone and seeing them from a vantage point they would normally never even have access to? One journalist may use their flying robot to take amazing shots of erupting volcanoes. Another may use theirs to follow Jennifer Lawrence and deprive her of privacy in a whole new way – with a very capable eye in the sky.

As for project ideas, I have a bit of an obsession with abandoned buildings, and there are several in the area I’ve had my eye on for a while. People are technically not allowed inside them a lot of the time for safety reasons, but a drone might be able to get some incredible footage. One example is the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island. There is also Hart Island with its mass gravesite, but there is also a prison there so I’m pretty sure flying a drone over it would be 150% illegal. North Brother Island is fascinating – Typhoid Mary was sent to live there. There are a lot of options.

Is drone journalism for real?

I think the accessibility of  drones are really great: I can already imagine a lot of potential projects that a drone can access (as long as you are not actively endangering someone). With a relatively cheap and small device, one can theoretically be able to uncover a story that might be impossible to do before: investigate an illegal landfill, hunting, poaching, dumping…or perhaps in nations  where the media is very tightly controlled, one can use drones and do investigative stories in areas and regions that might not be covered otherwise.

However, there are of course instances where drones journalism could be a concern for many. It is possibly much easier to invade one’s privacy and it is no surprise that many are threatened by the prevalence of drones. However, I believe the ethics of journalism has always been one that depends on the journalist, rather than available tools. Breaches of ethics, such as phone hacking, invasion of privacy, and harassment, have been a problem long before drones came into being. And I do truly believe that there are some wonderful journalistic opportunities in the future of drone journalism. I saw the wonderful footage during the Hong Kong protest, the climate march, and the protests in St. Petersburg…drones can truly capture the scale of a movement, and I am excited to have the opportunity learn more about what the possibilities that can be achieved with becoming more familiar with drones.

Is Drone Journalism for Real?

Drone journalism undoubtedly has the potential to change the course of journalism as we know it. As we mentioned in class, the fact that a random person (who has nothing really to do with journalism) can get a drone and document events like riots, protests, acts of civil disobedience, etc. is truly amazing. This could be huge for communist (or in general non-democratic) countries where governments basically own the media and curate the news according to certain people’s interest. A random person with a drone could take a picture/video which could have a massive effect (a picture/video which people would literally have no way of seeing otherwise). In that sense, drone journalism is something that is 100% for real. It could democratize the media industry in many ways (something that no one could ever imagine up until very recently). Nevertheless, the fact that drones have the potential to change journalism, does not mean that it will happen. The effect that they’ll have will depend on the legal issues that surround the use of drones. If governments decide to impose very strict laws (that directly forbid users to document certain things or to shoot in certain areas), then the effect of drones would be very limited (or much more limited than it would have been otherwise). Furthermore, putting aside the question of whether drones will changes things, there are also many palpable privacy issues regarding the use of drones. While I am not going to discuss this issue, it seems obvious to me that misusing drones could potentially prove to be very damaging.


Dancing with freaks (is drone journalism real?).

Diane Arbus said:  “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”  If I Ms. Arbus had a drone instead of Rolleiflex camera, I think the sentiment would have still applied. I find there is something that is quite mysterious (uncanny) in having a flying camera, it touches something in people it looks at us from above and with its one alien eye and I suppose, to it, we all look a little bit like freaks.

This past week I brought these tiny little yellow toys with me to a dance class at the other TISCH in Rashaun Mitchell’s introduction to Improvisation Dance Class for undergraduate dance majors.  These were essentially little smiley face toys, which are drones now because everything that flies is a drone now. Also they have some keen infrared sensors on their bellies and heads and they are also remarkably fun to dance with.  Myself and Kristina Budalis are creating a drone dance project for our Big Screen’s class and drones have actually taken up a large portion of my waking and dream life, I’m even going to be a drone for halloween, so I suppose I have become a little obsessed.



There were about 20 students who interacted with these tiny things and unsurprisingly the first half hour of class was spent listening to the students shreek and bat them and throw them against the walls and the ‘dancing’ looked more like people freaking out because well they were freaking out. But then the teacher Rashaun, stopped everyone.


He turned off the lights and gave them a meditation style of talk, about moving slowly, with expressive purpose, about looking into the eyes of the people you were dancing with not controlling the drone, knowing it would come back to you, allowing it to touch you and to just be.    After this the dancers began to make something beautiful and expressive happen with their little yellow flying object.  It also gave me a lot to think about with drones.      Afterall they make a lot of people freak out, for good reason.  Even when we know they are not for killing we know they are for spying, privacy makes us freak out.  The RC community is super fascinating, while I was exploring the available hacks and mods out there I noticed the general aesthetic tends toward the military replica.  Coding the AR drones is fascinating-  today while I was eating soup and talking to a friend about coding a drone for facial recognition -he asked me if I thought they would be used in modern gang warfare soon, perhaps they already are.  What does all of this have to do with drone journalism you may ask?  Sounds like we are dancing with drones right now and we are all freaking out.

From the moment that the film camera was invented – the way we represented truth shifted forever- in the way we wrote and talked about events, in the way we observed the past-yet for as much as it changed our world it did not provide us with a singular truth. There is spin in every photograph and story and looking back at events like the Rodney King Trial, where we have  video of an event we still were not  able as a country (let alone a world) to decide what to do about it, and today unfortunately as a country we are still having many of those same conversations in the media today, should cops wear video cameras? But what if we had a video? What would we do, how would our ‘truth’ change.   So this camera, the video camera, the drone camera, are tools but we allow how we feel about the tool itself to color how we can take in its ‘truth’.  Can we use them in protests to take our own ariel photographs? Yes, can we use them to see things we cannot see in normal circumstances? Yes, but when we talk about them if we are still seeing a loss of privacy, military campaigns and replicas and if we are still freaking out, it should be noted that it is also part of the ‘journalism’ at the moment. So perhaps the beginning of drone journalism would be to step away from the drone for a moment before we begin, to simply be, and then to pick it back up and begin to dance.


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.