Costa Rica Trip

The first addition to our Projects page:

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Since government regulations prevent us from doing drone journalism in U.S. airspace, we look for opportunities internationally. To date, our favorite spot to fly is Costa Rica, particularly in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Below you’ll see some of our recent work there.

“La Casona”

By: Justin Stewart, January 2015, Sector Santa Rosa, Área de Conservación Guanacaste.

Story by Ryan Schuessler

Drone video by Justin Stewart

In what could be first for Costa Rica, Missouri School of Journalism students used a drone to capture aerial footage of one of the nation’s most important historic landmarks.

The site, a former colonial ranch house known as La Casona, once anchored Hacienda Santa Rosa, a historic cattle ranch founded in 1663 in the northwestern lowlands of the Central American country. La Casona is the scene of several key battles that figured in Costa Rican independence, including in 1856, 1919 and 1955.

The drone flight occurred in January 2015 during a two-week field-reporting trip run by the Global Programs Office at the journalism school.

In the early 1970s, the hacienda became the anchor for Santa Rosa National Park. La Casona, meaning “big house,” now serves as a museum and cultural center for the Areá de Conservación Guanacaste, or Guanacaste Conservation Area.

In the 1980s, the park became the nucleus of an ambitious conservation effort in which the ranchland has, through natural regeneration, begun to restore itself into something approaching the native dry tropical forest of the area that had largely been cut down or burned. The conservation area has won recognition from the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.

A fire set by arsonists destroyed much of La Casona in 2001, but Costa Rican schoolchildren mounted a fund-raising campaign to have it rebuilt.

“The importance of La Casona and Santa Rosa cannot be underestimated,” said Bill Allen, an assistant professor of science journalism and leader of the study abroad course that brought the students to Santa Rosa. “It is sacrosanct as a landmark symbolizing the Costa Rican fight for independence and peace. It’s also a source of pride for Costa Ricans who value their role in protecting and restoring nature.”

Allen has covered the Guanacaste region for three decades. He is author of the book, “Green Phoenix: Restoring the Tropical Forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica.”

The students used a Phantom-2 drone provided by the MU Science and Agricultural Journalism Program of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The drone was piloted by student Justin Stewart and launched by Paige Blankenbuehler, both master’s students at the Journalism School.

Attached to the drone was a GoPro Dual three-dimensional video camera system provided by the MU3D project. The project is a Mizzou Advantage program that explores the possibilities of 3D imaging for journalism. The MU3D project is a collaboration of CAFNR, the Journalism School, and the Architectural Studies and Computer Science departments.

“Project Tiger Eye in the Sky”

By Natalie Helms, March 2015, Sector Poco Sol, Área de Conservación Guanacaste.

An interdisciplinary team of University of Missouri students dedicated their 2015 spring break to teaching Costa Rican wildlfire fighters how to fly a drone to gather rapid intelligence on fires set in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste.

During their 21-27 March 2015, the MU group also studied and reported on how the firefighters plan to use the drone.

The ACG is a World Heritage Site and a leading global example of large-scale tropical ecological restoration. Its forests and wildlife suffer from annual dry-season fires from November to May.

ACG’s firefighters acquired a drone and invited MU to teach them to fly it. Their objective was to use the drone to gather critical, real-time aerial views that will help them combat and prevent fires and save biodiversity.

For this reason, the trip was named “Project Tiger Eye in the Sky.” As a result of the project, the students produced several written and video stories, including a story on the project for Newsweek.

From Newsweek:

In 1986, scientists in the ACG began a project to restore a severely degraded tropical forest ecosystem to its pre-European-settlement state. Today the conservation area is a leading global example of tropical ecological restoration. The ACG hires and trains local residents as professional firefighters, and the fire program is renowned as the leading such program in Latin America. Despite the success, dry-season fires (November-May) still threaten the forest ecosystems of the conservation area, and they appear to be worsening as climate change affects regional moisture regimes.

The objectives of Project Tiger Eye in the Sky were to:

  • Help the firefighters learn how to use drones to scout, monitor and respond to human-caused dry-season wildfires that threaten biodiversity in the conservation area.
  • Expose the students to drone applications in a tropical forest conservation area as well as the history and ecological and political workings of the area.
  • Produce multimedia journalism about the experience.

As a result of their trip, the students trained 20 staff members from the conservation area, including a dozen firefighters. The Costa Ricans realized that they can now use drones not only to fight fires, but also to help stop illegal logging, animal poaching and fishing.

The firefighters are now flying a drone to gather real-time aerial images to help combat fires, save lives and protect the forest.

The trip was run through Mizzou’s Journalism Global Programs Office.

Students on the trip were Muhammad al-Rawi, Electrical Engineering major; Teresa Avila, and Natalie Helms of the Science and Agricultural Journalism Program; Paige Blankenbuehler, Journalism master’s student; Kris Corbett, Forestry/Fisheries and Wildlife double major; and Justin Stewart, Journalism master’s student. Grace Stojeba, a 2014 graduate of MU’s Environmental Studies Program, joined the group separately.

The project received financial support from the Carnegie Corp. of New York; National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Hatesohl-Lee Agricultural Journalism Fund for Excellence; Russell B. and Gladys E. Barclay Journalism Student Professional Development Fund; Missouri School of Journalism; Science and Agricultural Journalism Program and Division of Applied Social Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Department of Forestry; Immersive Visualization Lab (iLab) of the Department of Architectural Studies; and Journalism Global Programs Office.

The team arrived in Costa Rica just before midnight on March 21. After a day exploring the conservation area and testing the drones, they presented several group orientation lectures and individual lessons to the firefighters, including volunteers from Spain and Germany.

The team filmed wildfires and prescribed burns. After the fires, the firefighters analyzed what they saw as the students watched and listened.

Almost done momAs training continued, a few students went to other parts of the conservation area to fly over and film mangrove forests, estuaries, streams and vast valleys.

During several of the teaching days the temperature topped 100 degrees.

“I have to hand it to these students — they are hard core,” said Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism and leader of the project. “At the last minute they gave up other spring break plans and took on the challenge of training people in a foreign land to fly. They had to endure constant heat, long days, insects, the threat of fire and the occasional snake, and living in a different culture.

“They didn’t complain one bit. They reached their goal — to help build a better world by helping others protect nature.”

“Parcela de Principe Burn”

By Paige Blankenbuehler, March 2015, Sector Santa Rosa, Área de Conservación Guanacaste.

Following in the footsteps of Prince Philip of England, two Science and Agricultural Journalism students at the University of Missouri have set fire to a Costa Rican conservation area.

And that’s a good thing.

The two students, senior Teresa Avila and junior Natalie Helms, were given drip torches by firefighters with the Área de Conservación Guanacaste, a United Nations World Heritage Site in northwest Costa Rica. The students were permitted to set fire to a tall stand of pasture grass known as the Prince Plot.

The historic pasture, where the firefighters conduct a prescribed burn every year to preserve its character, got its name when his royal highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and one of the world’s leading conservationists, set the fire in 1988. At that time the plot was part of an experiment on tropical forest regeneration.

Avila and Helms traveled to the conservation area, commonly called ACG for its Spanish initials, during the 2015 spring break. ACG is a leading global example of large-scale tropical ecological restoration.

The two students were part of an interdisciplinary team of MU students invited by ACG officials to teach firefighters there how to fly small drones that carry a camera.


Learning to Fly

Mizzou students spent time teaching firefighters in Costa Rica to fly drones, and Justin Stewart captured their experiences in this video: