Local journalists use drones to elevate African news
Some call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), others prefer Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), but we’ll just call them drones. The technology is a touch controversial because of its military origin. But drones are also useful for civilian purposes – one of which is improving journalism and reporting, especially in Africa.
“The uses cannot be overemphasised in Africa,” says Dickens Olewe, a journalist with Kenyan newspaper The Star and one of the pioneers of this technology on the continent.
Olewe explains that drones can be used to cover fires and riots. “Conservationists can also use [them] to monitor animals,” he says. “The flying camera allows you to capture images without risking lives and property.”
Ben Kreimer from the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska agrees the unmanned aerial approach makes perfect sense in Africa’s wide-open spaces. He says that drones can perform tasks in areas such as agriculture and shipping. “Farmers, emergency services can use the tool to monitor traffic. African journalists have [also] been talking about telling their own stories… I think the tool allows them to enrich the perspective of these stories.”
African SkyCAM is the product of an idea pitched by Olewe in the 2012 African News Innovation Challenge. He went on to become one of 20 finalists in the Challenge and is now leading the SkyCAM project at The Star, partnering with Drone Journalism Lab who have the expertise and experience to give the idea legs – or rather, wings.
The technology is not entirely new to media, having been used by organisations like the BBC and CNN. But it’s particularly valuable in Africa because, says Olewe, it helps cut costs for media houses, most of which can’t afford to hire helicopters for assignments. “It’s a new form of journalism,” he continues, “giving us tools to enrich our coverage and provide angles that are crucial to a story.”
A drone can go as high as 300m and spend a maximum of six to ten minutes in the air. According to Drone Journalism Lab’s Ben Kreimer, they are extremely capable, relatively inexpensive aircraft (costs can reach tens of thousands of dollars, but the system he uses comes in at about US $1 400). The Phantom, for instance, can fly further than the eye can see and manoeuvre easily in tight spaces. Because this kind of technology is readily available, it could present a possible public safety and privacy threat.
To mitigate possible threats, manufacturers incorporate fail-safe mechanisms into their drones to prevent unexpected and avoidable crashes, says Kreimer. “I think effective regulations will require some sort of flight test, like a driver’s license test, which will demonstrate that the operator knows how to safely use their UAV,” he adds.
Yes, there are laws governing drone use in various countries. But in many others, including Kenya, there are no rules and regulations as yet.
So far the African SkyCAM technology has been used to report on motorsports and wildlife activities such as hippos’ invasion of farmland along the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. It has also been used to highlight the story of a farmer in central Kenya who applies modern technology in his farming.
Currently, The Star team has five journalists in the drone project, with several more being trained.
Ben Kreimer says that drones will help local journalists to tell stories and capture aerial perspectives like those from an airplane or helicopter, but for a fraction of the cost.
“They give reporters journalistic independence by allowing them to get aerial imagery that may be otherwise impossible to capture, or may require the assistance of government supplied aircraft,” he says. That’s why Kreimer, Olewe and others see the African SkyCAM project running indefinitely and leading to the creation of further drone journalism teams around Africa.
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