Robot Reporters

Will UAVs become as indispensable for journalists as notepads and digital recorders?

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Matt Waite (left) and Carrick Detweiler use a Falcon 8 UAV to document the effects of drought on the Platte River. (Ben Kreimer, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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I’ve read that you’re working with the university to document the Platte River? Can you tell me about that project?

Waite: Because we’re at a university, because we have no commercial interest, we have a little bit of flexibility here. We have at the university multiple groups working on projects out on the Platte River, which is a major water source that runs through the middle of the state. The Platte runs in some very rural areas, so we can go out there with UAVs and fly under recreational rules, where we’re nowhere near people. We’re far away from airports, we’re under 400 feet, and well within the line of sight at any time. We’ve produced some really amazing video from those places.

And you’re documenting the water levels, the drought?

Waite: We’re documenting the drought, and we’re documenting just what we did, because this is such a new thing that it’s interesting how we go about this.

We wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of another lab here on campus, called the NIMBUS [Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems] Lab. They are in the computer science and engineering department, and they’ve been working on issues involving UAVs for quite a while now. They volunteered to go out with us on the Platte, and we used their gear (we’re still waiting on our own gear). They have multiple varieties of UAVs, and they are looking for new and interesting ways to use them.

What types of UAVs did you use for this project?

Waite: The one that we mainly relied on is [from a] company called Ascending Technologies, a German company. And they have a device called the Falcon 8. It is an 8-rotored helicopter that has a camera mounted on the front of it that I believe goes for about $25,000. Which is why I’m glad the folks from the NIMBUS Lab were there with us.

I’ve got a little one here that I bought myself, it’s a Parrot AR drone, a $300 toy you can get at Brookstone at the mall. It’s a little quad-rotor that you can fly with your iPhone. It’s a toy, so it crashes a lot and it breaks a lot. So that’s my frame of reference on flying these things. This Ascending Technologies Falcon 8, if I had flown it and crashed it, I would have been handing them the keys to my car, and saying, “Yeah, I probably owe you another $20,000. Sorry!”

That’s the one we mostly used. They did some experiments with their Hummingbird, which is a quad-copter, four rotors, and we also brought one of the Parrot AR drones just for kicks because we had it right there. But the Falcon 8 is the one that did the most work. It is most steady, it had the best camera, it had the most range. It was a fantastic piece of technology.

How long can it stay in the air?

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