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Drones take journalism to new heights

A four-armed drone in flight.

The newest drone, the XAircraft X650 V8, flies in the quad near the Columns.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s a journalism drone!

When a news outlet wants aerial footage of traffic or scenery, they have to use a helicopter or plane. But with the assistance of the MU College of Engineering IT Program’s DroneLab and the collaborative efforts of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, a new option may be available.

The project’s goal is to use drones to gather images that will enhance news stories and, potentially, to generate stories. But before that could happen, the project needed someone with experience in building and piloting civilian drones to be involved.

Funded by a $25,000 grant from the MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund, technical expertise is being provided by project collaborator Matthew Dickinson who serves as system administrator and instructor for the Information Technology Program in the MU Computer Science Department.

“I’ve been doing drones for several years,” Dickinson said. “They contacted me to do the technical side and to teach the journalism students to use the drones.”

A four-arm drone sits atop a table.

This drone, labeled the XAircraft X650 V8, is the newest built in the Drone Lab for the collaborative program.

The project lead is KBIA’s Scott Pham, who came up with the idea. The cooperative drone journalism program also includes the Missouri School of Journalism. Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism, teaches a class in which journalism students are learning how to fly the drones and planning stories that will utilize the unique technology.

Allen said Dickinson’s involvement has been essential to the success of the science investigative reporting class.

“He is Mr. Drone. We wouldn’t have this team as successful as it is right now without Matt,” Allen said. “His experience is absolutely invaluable to this drone journalism program.”

Dickinson is teaching the journalism students to fly the drones.

“He’s building these things, he’s repairing them when we break them,” Allen said. “He patiently accepts the wounded bird and returns it a few days later as if brand new.”

So far, that’s three times a drone has been broken. Dickinson said teaching journalism students piloting skills has been a little tough.

“Some of the J-school students are not the most technical operators,” he joked. “It takes hand-eye coordination.”

The drones being used are relatively inexpensive, Dickinson said, and constructed from widely available spare parts and some off-the-shelf kits. Part of the grant includes experimenting with different models of drones to identify the type best suited to newsgathering.

A group of engineering and other students is assisting Dickinson in the construction of some prototypes. Justin Schuyler is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in educational technology from the Missouri School of Information Science and Learning Technologies (SISLT). He earned his undergraduate degree in information technology at Mizzou and said he enjoys working on the project — and drones in general.

“It’s the sheer fun of it,” Schuyler said. “Collaborating on a project like this is so exciting because of all the different parts – the journalism aspect, electrical engineering, computer science, the aerodynamics of the drones.”

The stories the journalism class is pursuing focus on rural issues, since FAA regulations prohibit flying drones over populated areas. Aerial images of land use along public waterways, public construction projects such as levees and other multimedia images that can enhance reporting are all potential uses of the drone project.

“It’s giving the journalism people the chance to get what they could get with a helicopter at one-one thousandth of the price,” Dickinson said.

The first project in the works right now is a story about prairie conservation in Missouri. All of the reporting work has been done except for the aerial footage of a controlled burn from a drone. Getting that footage has been hampered by bad weather and the specific wind direction needed for the burn to be safe.

“I never knew how frustrating waiting for a north wind could be,” Allen said. “Because we’re behind in our flight training, Matt is going to be our pilot.”

Another project tracking the migration of snow geese using drones was featured on NBC Nightly News, along with other university programs looking at drones in journalism. The story about snow geese, with footage from a drone, was published on KBIA.

Jesse Hall from MU IT Program on Vimeo.