The Media Toolkit: Drones and Data Journalism

Manager of UAS Ops Consulting at Skyward

In the media and news industry, the decision whether to use drones is often couched in economic and logistical terms. Yes, drones save money compared to helicopters when it comes to aerial photography, and they are more easily deployed in the field.

What these conversations often overlook are the ways in which drones can actually augment and expand the possibilities for journalists to gather data and tell stories. Adding more functionality to a newsroom is a benefit that should be weighed along with the financial concerns.

In order to understand how drones can help your team tell stories, it’s important to see them as more than just a flying camera. They are versatile tools that can gather a wide range of data types, including information that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Since the technology is relatively new, many use cases have yet to be discovered, and some of these solutions are still under development.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few examples of how drones can be used in ways that go far beyond aerial imaging solutions.

Detecting Radiation and Chemical Pollution

In March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility was hit by a tsunami. The ensuing meltdown led to a massive release of radioactivity, the effects of which are still being studied, though the surrounding area is slowly being repopulated. As journalists tell the story of Fukushima and other disasters that involve radioactive or harmful chemical substances, drones offer a means to collect data firsthand, rather than solely relying on statistics provided by government agencies.

A drone can be outfitted with a sensor that takes samples of the surrounding air and analyzes it for the presence of radiation, and a similar mounting can test for traces of chemicals or biological agents. Not only is this information valuable to public health and safety, it also helps private citizens hold polluters accountable.

With drones, these objectives can be accomplished without directly exposing the operator or crew to hazardous substances. Depending on the severity of the equipment’s exposure, it may be necessary to employ handling procedures to limit the chance of any residue affecting any personnel. In any case, the risk posed to journalists is significantly reduced through the use of drones in these scenarios, as the pilot can stand hundreds of meters away from the drone. As a bonus, drones are much less disruptive to their surroundings than the alternative: manned aviation.

Tracking Sound on the Ground

Helicopters are loud. Those big rotors chop the air and create huge waves of sound that can be deafening, reaching levels of over 100 decibels. As you can imagine, this makes it difficult to measure sound levels on the ground with a sensor mounted directly on the aircraft. Though many drones also employ rotor blades to fly, fixed-wing models can be outfitted with an acoustic sensor that is able to detect and locate the source of a sound.

Though this technology was developed with military solutions in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine the utility of a sound-sensing aircraft for journalistic purposes. It can be used to track poachers’ gunfire and document the illegal hunting of endangered species, especially when overlaid with infrared camera data.

If there are noise complaints arising from a downtown bar, a drone can collect data about the decibel level and report whether the establishment is breaking any local ordinances. The potential for this application ranges from the extraordinary to the mundane.

Shooting on the Non-Visual Spectrum

I mentioned earlier the possibility of capturing infrared images with a sensor mounted on a drone. Other than tracking simple heat signatures, these kinds of sensors (commonly referred to as FLIR, or forward looking infrared cameras) can be used for all sorts of visual and data journalism, particularly as the effects of climate change begin to manifest themselves.

A drone equipped with FLIR sensors can document the changes in a watershed and how much of the water is being absorbed by the soil. Combined with a thorough 3D map of the area, you have a compelling image to present as evidence of the urgent environmental problems of our time. PrecisionHawk makes a range of excellent drones and sensors that can be deployed in this capacity.

Drones will soon cross the threshold into being indispensable tools for any robust data collection operation at a serious media company. The possibilities for unmanned aviation are as exciting as the current state of the technology, and it’s only a matter of time before regulations catch up to the necessities of their use, allowing more widespread adoption of the technology.

In the meantime, Skyward provides excellent tools to navigate the legal landscape, ensuring your flights are within the bounds of current regulations, and are easily planned and recorded in our clear and simple software.