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Links, thoughts and research into using drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

October 26, 2012 at 3:52pm


How we used a drone to cover drought

By Matthew Waite

On Monday, we published our first stories using a small unmanned aerial vehicle to report on a record drought happening here in Nebraska. Here’s how we did it.


We were approached by the NIMBUS Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln about working together on a story. They have several UAVs and experience flying them in a variety of environments. We jumped at the chance. The trick was finding a story that would thread this needle:

  • The UAV would have to fly away from people and houses.
  • The UAV would have to fly under 400 feet.
  • The UAV would have to be within our sight at all times.
  • The UAV footage would have to be newsworthy and interesting.

Nebraska is in the midst of a record drought. The Platte River, a significant water source that runs the length of the state, had gone dry over the summer. Since the Platte is where Nebraska’s cities get their water supplies from, a dry river meant water restrictions and a lot of worry about what would be left in the wells going into the winter.

Drought, and a nearly empty river, fit our requirements. We could fly in rural areas, all within FAA restrictions, and the video would be interesting.

Our first idea was to fly near the city of Lincoln’s water wells, which are next to the Platte in Ashland, Neb. Problem? They’re also next to a Nebraska Army National Guard base. While it doesn’t present any airspace issues, we decided it was better to leave well enough alone and move up river. There, we found Two Rivers State Recreation Area near Yutan, Neb. Publicly accessible, fairly rural and upriver from the wells — perfect.

Then, we looked for a spot west of Lincoln. We settled on Duncan, Neb. because we were familiar with the spot. The town of Duncan was more than a mile from the river, there were few houses nearby and the riverbed was easily accessible from the public right-of-way. 

With two sites identified, we set out to get aerial video of them.


How we operated the UAV is interesting because it leads to a question. Are newsrooms going to develop the skills to fly these aircraft themselves or if they’re going to hire people who have experience doing this?

We believe the answer will ultimately be both, but in this instance, we turned all flight operations over to Carrick Detweiler, a professor of computer science at UNL and co-founder of the NIMBUS Lab. He flew the lab’s Ascending Technologies Falcon 8 UAV, a $25,000 aircraft with 8 rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera on the front. Detweiler had experience with the vehicle and with flying it over the Platte. 

We talked about what we wanted to see from the air before going up and we left Detweiler to fly the UAV. That’s an important point. The pilot of the UAV is responsible for the safety of the vehicle and anyone around it. So the pilot needs to be left alone to fly, not take over-here-now-over-here directions from a journalist. During battery changes, we talked briefly about what we were getting, and that was it. Detweiler was left to fly. 


The work done after the flight was a mixture of traditional and philosophical. We had interesting video of a major news story in the state. But that’s all we had. We needed experts to put it into context. We needed data to illustrate just how bad it was. The UAV is a tool to help journalists tell stories. That’s all. It’s a tool. A UAV does not tell stories on its own. So that’s what we needed to do: journalism.


Beyond the journalism we set out to do, we also experimented with something we hope to do later: use a UAV to interact with the physical environment to gather data or place sensors. Using an improvised rig of dowels, electrical tape and a glass ampule, NIMBUS’s Sebastian Elbaum and Hengle Jiang flew an Ascending Technologies Hummingbird attempting to gather a water sample. And, sure enough, we were able to get a sample out of the Platte. We didn’t do anything with it, other than prove we could do it if we tried.

We think the end result turned out well. We learned a few things, we have more of an idea of what it will take to journalism with a UAV, and we’re working on new stories using UAVs to report. 


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