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University of Missouri

Eyes in the Skies

Small, radio-controlled helicopters are officially part of the reporting toolkit at MU.

reporter drone

The Science Investigative Reporting/Drone Journalism course at MU trains students to pilot drones — essentially remote-controlled flying cameras — and integrate them into their reporting. Photo by Xiaojie Ouyang.

They look like the radio-controlled helicopters that fly through the mall around the holidays. They’re small, about the size of a garbage can lid, and they get blown around in the wind. Far from raining death on terrorist targets in remote areas, these drones are breathing new life into agricultural and environmental reporting in the heartland.

To MU School of Journalism students learning to pilot them, they’re called “J-Bots.” These eyes-in-the-sky offer a new 400-foot perspective on stories about migrating birds, drought or polluted waterways.

The Science Investigative Reporting/Drone Journalism course, taught by journalism Assistant Professor Bill Allen, trains students to pilot the remote-controlled flying cameras, but also — and more important — how to integrate drones into their reporting.

Scott Pham, Web editor at Columbia’s NPR affiliate, KBIA, received a $25,000 grant from the MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund to launch the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, which is a partnership between KBIA, the J-School and the MU Information Technology Program. Mike McKean, director of the Futures Lab at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, is an adviser.

The money bought five drones, each assembled and modified by Matthew Dickinson, a system administrator with the Information Technology Program.

Pham modeled the drone program after a similar one at the University of Nebraska, but because he had a ready outlet for stories in KBIA, he focused it less on exploring the ethics of unmanned aerial surveillance and more on producing stories that only drones could tell.

The class started meeting in January 2013 and published its first story for KBIA in March. Allen says he hopes to continue teaching the class as long as there’s interest.

The idea of putting a camera in the sky is not new. Anyone who watched O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco on Interstate 405 in 1994 knows that. But helicopters are prohibitively expensive for most news outlets, and a drone with a camera only costs about $1,000.

There are restrictions, however. A bill matriculating through the Missouri General Assembly, HB 46, would require anyone operating a drone to seek permission from property owners before surveilling their land. Pham says they already do that. Also, Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit drone use above 400 feet, for commercial purposes or in populated areas, which rules out the stories helicopters are normally used for. So the drone program has to think differently.

I think new things come out of old tools once they can be used in new ways,” Pham says. “You’d never think to use a helicopter for agricultural stories. I don’t think anyone’s ever said, ‘What great agricultural stories can we cover with helicopters?’ because it’s a stupid question. But it’s not a stupid question anymore.”