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Columbia Missourian

Grant awarded to research drones as reporting tools

By Lizzie Johnson
November 14, 2012 | 5:31 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Journalists may soon be able to report from new heights, thanks to drones. 

The small, flying robots are being explored as tools for reporting from the air. Scott Pham, content director for KBIA/91.3 FM, has received a $25,000 grant from the MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund to develop drones for journalism use.

The interdisciplinary project will be a partnership among the MU School of Journalism, KBIA and MU Information Technology, which is part of the College of Engineering.

"I had the idea that I wanted to work with drones because I thought they were really cool," Pham said. "I was like, hey, if you're going to just let me pick anything to develop, that's what I'm going to pick."

The drones will be used to take photographs and record video aerially over landscapes that would be difficult or expensive to document otherwise. Combined, the images could be used to make real-time maps of geographical areas. 

Pham said the idea was inspired during a field project at Birds Point Levee in October 2011.

"The reporting was difficult to do because you had to do it from the ground up, and it was so low," he said. "We would have benefited so much more from getting a bird's-eye view. I was psyched by the idea."

MU will be one of two journalism schools in the nation researching the use of drones as journalism tools, Pham said. A $50,000 Knight prototype grant donated by the Knight Foundation established the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in November 2011.

The first aerial stories on drought shot by the drones at the Nebraska lab were published in October. 

Pham said the work done at Nebraska was another factor in spurring drone research.

"I just felt like we could get it done faster here," he said. "The competitive side of me kicked in."

The grant money will be used to fund research and construction of the drones, buy equipment and pay for a teaching assistant. A graduate-level class led by Bill Allen, an assistant professor of agricultural journalism at MU, will assist with the project.

Although an exact timeline has not been determined, Pham said he hopes the first stories will be published by the end of the spring semester. 

"Not knowing exactly what you're going to do is challenging," Pham said. "A good drone requires a quick reaction. They can't do that when there are wires sticking out everywhere. After we test them, we will build the drones with help from the Engineering Department."

Pham said it is estimated to cost $10,000 to build two to three drones.

Matthew Dickinson, IT program instructor and project technical adviser, said the drones will be built using materials from existing components, rather than from scratch.

"When you build a house, you don't chop the tree down to build the walls," Dickinson said. "You go out and buy wood. We are using different materials that already exist, such as different kinds of plastic and computer chips, to build the drones."

The flying robots won't be hovering over residential areas anytime soon, though. Restrictions include flying under 400 feet and away from airports and other populated areas. 

The graduate class associated with the project will spend time discussing the ethics of using drones in reporting.

In February 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which ordered the FAA to develop regulations and restrictions for commercial drones by 2015. 

Dickinson said he thinks a lot of people do not trust drones or have a perception that drones are used just as military weapons.

"There are a lot of civilian uses that can be good things," Dickinson said. "If someone wants an aerial shot, they can use a drone instead of paying thousands of dollars for a helicopter shot."

Pham said they will be used to document rural, agricultural and environmental projects, such as droughts or flooding. 

"This could be a really promising innovation when it comes to reporting," he said. "It could change the way we do it. We want journalists to do stories that put drones up in the air."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.