Drone Journalism Website Returns to Action


After a short hiatus in which we concentrated on indoor teaching and international field reporting with drones, we are pleased to resume our posts on this website.

We will start with stories about our activities and courses over the past two-plus years since the Federal Aviation Administration instructed us to stop flying anywhere in U.S. airspace. We’ll also have news and information on developments in our program, which has recently expanded to include more partners.

Students fly a Phantom drone through a training obstacle course for their final flight lab for the semester on Thursday, April 30 and Friday, May 1, 2015 at the University of Missouri indoor Trowbridge Arena.  The class titled “Civilian Drone Issues, Applications & Flight” included lecture classroom sessions, plus a hands-on lab component for students to learn aerial maneuvers.  This final flight lab challenged the students to navigate a series of slalom-style poles and touch-and-go landing tables, and then shoot a video “selfie” with a GoPro.  We nicknamed the final flights as the “Drone-lympics.”

Students fly a Phantom drone through a training obstacle course for their final flight lab for the semester on Thursday, April 30 and Friday, May 1, 2015 at the University of Missouri indoor Trowbridge Arena. The class titled “Civilian Drone Issues, Applications & Flight” included lecture classroom sessions, plus a hands-on lab component for students to learn aerial maneuvers. This final flight lab challenged the students to navigate a series of slalom-style poles and touch-and-go landing tables, and then shoot a video “selfie” with a GoPro. We nicknamed the final flights as the “Drone-lympics.”

Our focus will remain what it always has been:

  • On exploring new approaches to information-gathering and storytelling that this rapidly evolving technology promises.
  • On preparing students to be leaders in pursuit of innovative, engaging, ethical and responsible public-service journalism anywhere in the world–using drones as on of their many tools.

Bill Allen and Rick Shaw



Yes, the University of Missouri is still pursuing drones


A somewhat mystifying article appeared in the Associated Press today, about how the University of Missouri School of Journalism plans to seek approval from the FAA to fly drone aircraft.

Clearly this is true, but it bears some clarification.  The article linked above says that the application will allow us to “resume the use of news-gathering drones”, which is technically accurate, but the issue is far more complicated than that.  A Certificate of Authorization comes with it a huge set of regulations that will make “drone journalism,” as we’ve come to know it, all but impossible.  Flight will occur only within a predetermined, relatively small, contiguous space. Our ability to travel and respond to events (key attributes of field reporting) will be entirely curtailed.  Call it a quibble, but I’m not sure everyone knows these details.

The second thing I’d like to clarify is less quibble and more mystery.  As one can see from the blog post below, all of this information is old news.  Over a month old. Some news outlets ran with this story last month, and I expect that some who missed it the first time around will run the “new” one as well. I’m available for quotes (email in the sidebar) but please be aware of the timeline and context around this issue.

Missouri Drone Journalism Program to reconfigure goals after FAA letter

When the Senate reauthorized the FAA in 2012, the agency was tasked with bringing unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace.  Until then, drone flights are extremely restricted

When the Senate reauthorized the FAA in 2012, the agency was tasked with bringing unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace. Until then, drone flights are extremely restricted

Through the eight months the Missouri Drone Journalism Program has operated, we’ve flown under the guidelines the FAA has set down for remote control aircraft. Those guidelines are generally as follows: a pilot may not fly above 400 feet, over populated areas, or near airports. A pilot may not fly beyond his range of sight, or without manual control.

Most of the showy stuff you’ve seen on youtube is outside of these boundaries as we’ve interpreted them. Because most private property extends to 500 ft in the air, we do not fly over land where we lack landowner permission. Because of how strictly we interpret the manual-control guideline, we do not use widely available GPS-guided flight.

Still, we’ve managed to safely produce high-quality, real pieces of journalism. We flew over public prairie to cover a controlled burn. And we flew over public waterways to get footage for a piece on fracking along the Missouri River.

Last month the Missouri Drone Journalism Program received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requesting that we cease all outdoor flight until we obtain what’s called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. Our colleagues at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received one too.

The FAA is still working on a full set of regulations for Unmanned Aerial Systems like our drones. But the agency does have a special certification process for “public agencies.” These include police agencies, fire departments and universities. The FAA considers our program a “public agency” and therefore asks that we apply for a COA in order to continue outdoor flight.

We intend to apply for a COA and we have no reason to think we will be denied. But it will significantly change the way we act as a program.

We will only be able to fly outdoors when within a single, small, contiguous airspace that is not a populated area. Any photography we obtain with the drone will be within this small space.

For the past several months, we were primarily concerned with the creation of news content with drone flight. Within a defined airspace, its hard to imagine the kinds of stories we can produce.

To reflect this new reality, the Program will spend the fall semester researching and applying for a COA.  Once submitted, the COA will take about 60 business days to complete. Assuming the application is successful, in the spring we will work with a team of students to pursue the development of drone technology and techniques for journalism. We will experiment with different types of aircraft, sensors and cameras. Our research will help to lay a foundation for the future of drone journalism.

New story: Northern states enjoy an oil boom with free Missouri River water

Missouri River water fuels North Dakota fracking boom from KBIA FM on Vimeo.

In the summer of 2012, midwestern states like Missouri were hit hard by a regional drought. The lack of rainfall wasn’t just hurting crops, it was hurting industry. The Missouri river is a major traffic lane for barges carrying all manner of commodities up and down the region. When the river runs low, traffic stalls and eventually stops.

That’s just one reason why we found it odd that companies to the north of Missouri were drawing massive amounts of water from the Missouri River. Oil and gas companies in North Dakota need steady supplies of water for their drilling and fracking operations and the Missouri River is the most plentiful source.

In April of this year, reporter Brendan Gibbons followed the Missouri River to visit our northern neighbors. He found that not only were the oil and gas companies successfully drawing water wherever they needed it, but they were doing so for free.

A skilled drone pilot, Gibbons collected aerial photography of drilling operations along the Missouri River. View the video above and read the story on KBIA.org.

Drone team flies over excavation site

cahokiaLast April drone journalism reporters Cade Cleavelin and Gwen Girsdansky members visited the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville Illinois.  The mounds are earthwork structures made by an ancient, massive metropolitan society that once rivaled some of the biggest cities in the world in population.  Little is known about how their society was structured and a team of archaeologists from Italy are investigating.

The team flew the drone over the excavation site to get some great views of the mounds and the digs.  Read the full story at it’s home on KBIA.  And check out the video, produced by Cade Cleavelin:

Archaeologists unearth more clues to ancient Cahokia civilization from KBIA FM on Vimeo.

Korean Journalists Observe a Class, Drones in Flight


The Missouri Drone Journalism program received a visit from a group of Korean journalists during class on Monday, April 22. The group was made up of seven reporters that are based in Seoul, South Korea. All are defectors from North Korea. A few of the reporters even left the communist nation within the last two years. Many now work for publications that cover North Korean topics for a South Korean audience.

The journalists were visiting as part of a seminar with the East-West Center. The group studied new media techniques during its stop at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo. for most of the past week, and will also travel to Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

During the afternoon, the journalists discussed possible uses of drones in journalism and observed a drone in flight. The class also showed some of its published work involving drone footage to the Korean journalists.

A visiting reporter with the newspaper DailyNK in Seoul, said that she believed drone technology would be useful in documenting the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea.

“I specialize in North Korea coverage, and overhead pictures of both the demilitarized zone and the edge of the North (Korea) would be dynamic,” said the reporter through an assigned translator.

The Drone Journalism program also hosted a group of Pakistani journalists for a similar session in March.

*Names were omitted from the text and faces were omitted from photographs to protect the North Korean families of defected journalists from possible retribution.*

More images from the Korean journalists’ visit:




Journalists from Pakistan visit the Missouri Drone Journalism Program

Video By Zach Garcia

Earlier last month, the Missouri Drone Journalism Program was asked to give a group of visiting Pakistani journalists a demonstration and brief explanation of the program and its goals. The journalists were brought to tour the United States through an exchange set up by the East-West Center, which “promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialog.”

It works similar to a foreign exchange program: it seeks out a group of journalists from both the United States and Pakistan with backgrounds in different media, and sends them on a two-week tour of the each others’ country.

While the visiting journalists were not originally planning on visiting the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, we jumped at the opportunity. We were unsure how a group of Pakistanis would react to such a controversial technology being used in journalism, and was pleasantly surprised when the Pakistanis expressed.

The visiting group was most interested in the potential implementation of drone in dangerous situations like suicide bombings and natural disasters. After introducing them to the Program, we showed the group a couple of the articles and stories we’ve produced. We then we gave the journalists the opportunity to see the drones in action and even taught a few of them how to fly.

Matthew Dickinson gave them a brief lesson and then put the controls in their own hands. After about 15 minutes of flying, the visiting journalists had their fill of flight for the day. Most were able to get the drone into the air after a couple tries, an impressive feat given the steep learning curve most experience with our models.

The slideshow below shows a couple of the visiting journalists first attempt at drone flight.


What Flies When it Comes to Drone Laws Across the Globe

Courtesy: Matthew Dickinson/MU IT Drone Lab

Courtesy: Matthew Dickinson/MU IT Drone Lab

As debate over drones in combat reaches a tipping point in the United States, the use of unmanned flying bots on domestic ground is also starting to pick up steam. As many as 28 states are considering legislation that would outlaw unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Another contentious issue in the U.S. is what makes a UAV “commercial” or “recreational.” Commercial use is generally recognized as having a profit endgame, but murky Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) laws only fuel the debate. Using UAVs for journalistic purposes seems to further blur the line between commercial and recreational use.

UAVs have also been making waves internationally, where laws (or guidelines) vary from nation to nation. The below is a guide we’ve put together that breaks down these various UAV laws. In most of the countries we’ve taken a look at, the designation between commercial and recreational UAV use is a key starting point in deciding rules and enforcement.

Canada (UAV-Friendly Rating: 2/5)

Perhaps the most complex UAV laws in the entire world exist just north of U.S. borders. Transport Canada is the agency that regulates Canadian air space, and it sets a clear line between “unmanned aerial vehicles” (commercial use) and “model aircraft” (recreational use). The definition of a model aircraft: less than 77.2 pounds, individually owned (no companies allowed) and not profit-seeking. If an aircraft meets these conditions, it is considered a recreational vehicle, making it subject to lower scrutiny. Aircraft that don’t meet this criteria are officially “unmanned aerial vehicles” and require Special Flight Operations certificates. Getting certified sounds like an almost more-trouble-than-it’s-worth process that includes a big list of specifications. For example: a UAV can meet the three model aircraft standards listed above, but if it’s also got a small camera, then the UAV automatically becomes an “unmanned aerial vehicle” under the law.

DIYdrones has more useful information on Canadian UAV law.

Mexico (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)

No Civil Aviation Authority regulations beset UAV users in Mexico. In fact, Mexican attitudes evidently encourage UAV use. The Mexican government rewarded Jordi Muñoz, who is a young scientist and engineer, for exploring the peaceful uses of drones through his own production company, for example. The government also uses UAVs for everything from drug activity to university research.

United Kingdom (UAV-Friendly Rating: 3/5)

The U.K.’s UAV laws are similar to the current policies of the U.S. – meaning they’re really more like guidelines than a comprehensive set of regulations. Currently, CAP 722 claims jurisdiction over UAV use in the U.K. This legislation divides UAV use into two groups that both require permits. The key figure in the U.K. is 20 kg (or 44.09 pounds) – this is the weight limit a UAV cannot surpass to be considered a  “small unmanned aircraft.” This title makes the aircraft more likely to only require a minor “Permit to Fly” classification, which is relatively easy to acquire, but does limit where and how high you can fly (rural lands are more acceptable).

Anything heavier or used for aerial photography requires a “Permit to Carry Out Aerial Work,” which comes with tougher restrictions. Attaining one of these permits requires a big list of prerequisites – from pilot qualification to design and construction certificates. According to The Guardian, there are only 130 groups or companies that have permission to fly UAVs in U.K. airspace.

Europe (UAV-Friendly Rating: 2/5)

Much of mainland Europe operates under the jurisdiction of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), a European Union group. EASA is simple when it comes to UAVs: you’re going to need certification in any situation, whatsoever. Such certification is only granted on a case-by-case basis under the EASA’s rules, which we’d imagine is a  lengthy process. The EASA also has shown that it does not operate under much precedent in these cases, despite UAV technology growing more and more everyday. EASA’s Policy Statement webpage on UAVs says that requests proposing flight in unpopulated areas have the best success rate.

Brazil (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)

In South America, Brazil has become a leading player in UAV use. On the national level, the country is investing deeply in UAVs to patrol its borders. There are also no direct laws that infringe free civilian use. Such openness allows for amazing footage, like this video adventure in Rio de Janeiro:

Asia (UAV-Friendly Rating: an indifferent 1/5)

Both communist China and democratic Japan are using UAVs to square off with each other in a sort of micro-aggressive battle for disputed land. Similarly, South Korea also may be dipping its toes in militaristic UAV use through possible collaboration with the U.S. The only non-military use of UAVs that we’ve been able dig up in the region are limited to corners of agriculture, such as with  rice fields of Japan.

Australia (UAV-Friendly Rating: 4/5)

Oceana is perhaps the most welcoming region for UAVs in the world. An “unmanned aircraft system” is Australian terminology for a UAV used for profit-seeking “air work,” but such commercial use only requires some easily attainable identification. Otherwise, the UAV is a “model aircraft, flown for sport & recreation and education,” according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Model aircraft, from what we’ve seen, are completely hands-off in terms of regulation.

New Zealand (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)

New Zealand law is like Australia, but without the identification requirement. It appears as if recreational and commercial motivations for UAV flight are indistinguishable in New Zealand, and free-flying policies lead to visual marvels like this video clip. The Aviation Industry Association of New Zealand has proposed legislation on UAVs, but the proposal is reportedly more of a non-restrictive manual for UAV use than anything.

UAV law ranges quite a bit internationally, which is exemplary of the many opinions on the new aircraft in the U.S.. As of now, the U.S. combines much of both strict but broad laws with fairly open areas of freedom in flight. While much of the direct U.S./FAA regulation zeroes in on commercial purposes for use, recreational or “hobbyist” use has generally been left alone as long as UAVs aren’t breaking trespassing laws. State legislation currently being considered, however, could catapult the U.S. up to among the most highly restricted countries for UAVs out there.

Program Reports on Prairie Fire

The size of Tucker Prairie has been slightly reduced since the construction of I-70; the area is 145 acres.

The size of Tucker Prairie has been slightly reduced since the construction of I-70; the area is 145 acres. Photo by Brendan Gibbons/KBIA

Last Tuesday, the Missouri Drone Journalism Program covered a prairie fire at Tucker Prairie near Kingdom City, Mo. to publish their second official piece.  The story we produced focuses on just what makes a prairie a prairie, and why the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) uses fire to maintain the land.

The MDC explains how a controlled fire is the best way to rid the prairie of harmful invasive species and restore the prairie back to it’s natural habitat.

Read the full story published by the program’s main partner KBIA as well as Harvest Public Media, and be sure to watch the video below, which includes aerial drone footage of the burn.

Program Reports on Prairie Fire: Behind the Scenes


Pilot Brendan Gibbons gives behind-the-scenes details of what it was like to fly the quadcopter drone over flames during a controlled burn at Tucker Prairie in Kingdom City, Mo, on April 2, 2013. As a member of the program, Gibbons is learning to control the drone through a remote control and use the footage captured by the drone to assist in reporting. The story on the burn is the second story completed by the Missouri Drone Program, and was published on Tuesday, April 9 on Harvest Public Media and KBIA.