“Dronalism” – using drones for journalism

Drone Camp, Cape Town: 13-15 July, 2016

I’ve just attended the first ever Drone Camp South Africa organised by Chris Roper, senior knight fellow at Code for Africa and the International Centre for Journalists.

The team and I working out how to build our drone
The team and I working out how to build our drone

It was a three day introduction to the ideas, concepts and legalities of “Drone journalism”. There were numerous speakers from across the industry and we also had the opportunity to build a small drone from scratch using off the shelf parts.

The first thing we did was to look at the work of Johnny Miller and his excellent project “Unequal scenes”. It’s a project that the American has been working on for some time now and that focuses on showing the divisions and inequality within South Africa. The use of drones has allowed him to show in powerful single shots the discrepancies in living standards between the mainly white middle classes and their much poorer black and coloured neighbours. From the air one can clearly see the walls and natural obstacles that separate posh golf estates from informal shantytowns. Johnny explained his thought process and methodology. He told us how he chooses his spots using google earth and also advised that long slow shots work better when using the drone, especially as the shots can then be sped up to great affect.

This whet our appetite and we were brimming with excitement at the amazing possibilities that drone journalism, or “dronalism” offers, we then came crashing back down to earth – excuse the pun. . . Braam from a company called UAV Industries then explained to us the legalities of operating a drone for journalism/commercial uses in South Africa. The short version is that it is a long, expensive process and so far only 7 licenses have been issued in the whole of South Africa. While an individual can get a license he then can’t fly an aircraft commercially without various other pieces of paperwork including an Air Service License, which is essentially the same paperwork a new airline would need to file with the Civil aviation authorities. From start to finish obtaining the correct licenses would cost over 120,000 rand and take more than a year.

“We’re fans of regulation because we want our industry to be safe,” Alan Ball of Flying Robot, told the Mail and Guardian newspaper this week, ”But we think there should be different tiers of certification. A guy filming a wedding on a wine farm with a 2kg drone shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions as someone operating a 20kg drone at high altitudes on a commercial film shoot.”

Operating without the paperwork can incur a 50,000 rand fine or a ten year jail sentence. I was also disturbed to hear that even if you don’t get arrested while shooting you can be prosecuted afterwards if somebody in the CAA sees your video and starts asking questions – there has been cases of this, including the drone operator for a well known South African current affairs show who was forced to settle out of court with a large fine.

The question was asked if tethered aircraft was a viable alternative – it was thought that it might be. By having the drone tethered to an object, it’s movement will automatically be restricted and eliminates the need for a trained pilot to operate it. The same concept applies to technical errors too. With tethered drones, GPS navigation isn’t required anymore. In a simpler sense the main benefit in using tether drones is that it’s safer. With the chances of crashes decreased and piloting skills kept to a minimum, the odds of having an accident are considerably smaller. This is definitely a field worth exploring.

It’s a shame that regulations are so strict. In America where the regs have recently been relaxed they are predicting that the industry could soon become a major employer.

In Australia you can operate a drone that weighs less than 2kg with very little restrictions. It seems it will need massive pressure from civil society, journalists and industry to try and change things and so far there is no sign that that will happen.

If you are a private individual flying for fun then the rules are much more relaxed as long as you stay a minimum of 50m away from people or buildings and avoid airports, national key points or night flying.

Next we heard from Edward Anderson of the World Bank who is helping African countries recognise the usefulness of drones. His team has been using them to survey public transport routes in Dar Es Salam, mapping farming plots so that deeds can be made and using digital terrain models to help with disaster planning.

Ben Kreimer from Buzzfeed followed. He has a fellowship with the Buzzfeed creative labs and has been working on finding new ways to tell stories. His big thing is photogrammetry – the science of making measurements from photographs. Using photogrammetry, we can create 3D models (of things, places, or people) from photographs, and embed them in stories. It’s a great way to capture a space for a story- to bring a location alive. I could imagine it working if you wanted to tell the story of one building or location – for example a refugee camp – you can make a 3D model and then click on links within it that play videos about the lives of those who live there.

He’s been using a service called SketchFab to host 3D renderings – their HTML5 viewer works very well on mobile and browser, and you can embed a SketchFab rendering in the CMS. He also recommended Apps that can help with this type of project including Drone Deploy, Pics 4D and Autodesk memento.

You can view his 3D model of Nairobi’s Dandora Dumpsite here.

When I pressed him He did though admit that audience engagement had been hard to gauge and that in general he thought it had been quite low.

Paul Egglestone was over from the university of central Lancaster. He reinforced much of what we had already heard and we spoke about the ethics of using drones. Both he and I felt that using drones did not require a whole new journalistic code – just a sensible interpretation of the ethics we already use.

Dickens Olewe then dialled in to talk about the PSDJ. Established in 2011, PSDJ is the first international organization dedicated to establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism. They develop small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for journalists, and explore best practices to deploy them for a variety of reporting needs, including investigative, disaster, weather, sports, and environmental journalism. There was talk that we would like to open a South Africa branch and if that happens then I would love to be involved.


We finished off the week by practicing our drone skills on a small model quad copter – it was great fun and great practice. Though sadly we were limited to flying indoors due to the weather.

We then finished our own drone build using a ZMR250 DIY Combo and then testing them to make sure they worked. I still haven’t had the opportunity to fly it yet but I’m really looking forward to putting it through its paces. There is no camera attached – it is purely for practice and drilling of skills.

All in all a cracking few days and one that has really opened my eyes to the different ways drones can be used beyond just pretty pictures. . . Watch this space.

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