Which drone to buy for journalism?

Drone journalism logsWhat is the best drone for your reporting job?

You have seen them at work and now you want to have one yourself. Dutch News Design created a drone buyer’s guide.

Let’s start with a (non-comprehensive) pros and cons list of drone models. Yup, an infographic.

What drone to choose for journalism

So which drone to buy for journalism?

That depend on what you want to do with it. There are roughly four kinds of reporters using drones:

High-end reporters. These are the documentary makers and tv producers, using top-notch quality cameras for all their shooting, so also when the camera is mounted on a drone. These kind of cameras are usually heavy, so the drones need enough lifting power, and the pilot better has a decent training (nobody wants to crash a 12,000 euros drone plus camera). Filmmaker Philip Grossman explains how he uses a 4K drone for his documentary on Chernobyl, in an interview with DND.

Photojournalists. Some are aerial photographers ‘downgrading’ from using a helicopter to flying a (much cheaper) drone. Others will upgrade their photography kit with the additional perspective of the drone. The photographer’s drone must be able to hover. Usually it doesn’t need to cover large areas or stay in the air for long, as in many cases one or two photos are enough. Additionally, photojournalists will prefer quality cameras – usually found in the DSLR section. However, there is an increasing amount of decent light weight cameras on the market. Some photo reporters will prefer that, as they won’t be using the drone on a daily basis. In an interview with DND, photojournalist Eric Brinkhorst discloses how he illegally employs his hexacopter and pro camera.

Multimedia reporters. These journalists will use the drone for a variety of cinematographic and news gathering purposes. For example to gain a survey of an occurrence or to obtain additional shots for a video report or a broadcasting. A thousand euro drone will usually be sufficient. Some of these drones have a built-in camera. I experimented with one of these drones in 7 days of flying turned me into a skilled drone pilot.

Investigative journalists. This category can drones to gather data with cameras or other sensors. Which drone to buy or build, depends on the geographic area of research and the size of the sensor. Some investigations might need a drone that can land on water, or can endure heat, moisture etc. This makes it more likely for an investigative reporter (co)-build a drone. Drone professor Matt Waite experiments in his lab with commercial and self-build drones. Waite, who is also a Pulitzer prize winner, is an advocate of using drone for scientific journalism purposes, as he told DND in an interview.

Will you use it for long distance flights or hovering close by?

Most reporters are interested in multicopters, as they can hover. For investigative journalism or war reporting a fixed-wing model, like the delta drone1 or the model airplane2 might be useful for certain tasks, as they are capable of covering long distances. These drones do need some space for landing. On top of that, you will loose sight of the drone once it is a few hundred meters away. Not all countries allow breaking the line of sight with the drone.

Types of drone flights

Expect DIY looks, no slick John Ive design

The fast-paced development of drone technology is partly caused by the thousands of hobbyists building drones and sharing their information for free. But even on the commercial drones the wires and PCB’s aren’t smoothed away nicely. Drones aren’t as smoothly designed as smartphones, despite it’s being a new technology. This is no shortcoming, as drones do sometimes crash, or have a rough landing, and parts need to be replaced once in a while. An accessible body makes that easy.

Many hobbyists offer drone building services. Often this is more interesting than a manufactured model, as they can build it exactly to your liking. For example to carry your specific type of DSLR.

What to equip your drone with?

A drone needs to be equiped and that is where you spend most of your money. To stabilise a camera, the drone needs a gimbal. Other recommended parts are a GPS, a video transmitter, and receiver.

And then there are the tools you need for news gathering (and publishing).

Tools for News drones

Abbreviations on the drone buyers market:

RTF Ready-To-Fly: charge the batteries, install the propellers, attune the controller and drone, and take-off.
BAF Bind-And-Fly: Sold without controller. So you need to buy one, or use your old. Can get complicated, as not all transmitters and receivers match.
ARF Almost-Ready-To-Fly: Sold in parts. Fun. Do it yourself. And cheaper than prefabricated drones. Sometimes this requires soldering.

Tips:

  • Invest in a decent controller. These are durable, and the built-in transmitter is replaceable if necessary. On top of that, a good controller can control more drones.
  • Invest in a battery charger. Cheap chargers can be slow and unreliable. The high-end models are sometimes capable of charging different types of batteries.
  • Enjoy community knowledge, go join a drone club.
Students at the Belgian KU Leuven university designed  a combi drone. Who knows if this could make for a versatile journalism tool on day.

 

  1. The “Vanguard by ConservationDrones is a delta drone that can fly about 40 kilometers, and stay in the air for an hour.
  2. The Raven RQ 11 is a model airplane. It can cover a distance of 10 kilometers. There is a fake Raven on the market for about ninety euros.

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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