Matthew Schroyer is the founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, the first international organization dedicated to establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism. He also works as a Drones for Schools developer at the National Science Foundation grant EnLiST (Entrepreneurial Ledership in STEM Teaching and learning), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
You founded the Professional Society of Drone Journalists. What does your organization do?
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists is an international organization of more than 80 journalists, engineers, pilots, and educators from more than a dozen countries. There is a PSDJ member on every continent on the globe, with the exception of Antarctica. Essentially, we’re trying to improve the quality and impact of news reporting with the adoption of unmanned aircraft.
We try to do this through a number of means: We keep members up-to-date on the latest developments in the technology, regulation and application of UAS with a news site and newsletters, and offer opportunities for people in this new field to connect and share information with others. Perhaps most importantly, we abide by a code of ethics that is meant to ensure the safe, responsible operation of this amazing tool.
What are some of the ways you are able to use UAS in investigative reporting?
Like many others in the United States, I’ve had to delay investigative work due to pending regulations. And like the many other members in the US, I’ve spent this time learning and experimenting with this technology so as to be prepared when the time comes. I’m also looking for opportunities outside of the United States where this tool can be used.
What other projects have your UAS been used for?
The UAS I have most experience with are the ones I put together with my students from the Drones for Schools program, which are fixed-wing, electric aircraft for photomapping. We use these in a hobby capacity, and have produced photo mosaics of the ground, which are kind of a precursor to a photomap (a photo where the dimensions are map-accurate). Once our aircraft is perfected, we’re looking to partner with farmers in our community to help them obtain data on their crops.
What got you interested in UAS?
It’s just such a fascinating technology. I’ve always been infatuated with tech; I started my undergraduate career as a mechanical engineering student. I somehow ended up with an advanced degree in journalism, but found myself relying more and more on those math, computer programming, and computer aided drafting skills to produce data-driven stories. The real kicker was stumbling on the “maker movement,” which includes some who design, program, and fly all sorts of small, homebrew UAS. Then I saw these people making incredible videos, maps and data sets, all on a small budget.
It struck me: these people are getting some pretty useful information from this technology. Could we deploy that in journalism? Could we engage more children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education with UAS? The answer to both those questions was a certifiable “yes.”
Your organization has developed a code of ethics for the use of UAS. How did you develop the code? Why do you think it is important?
Some of the concern over privacy involving UAS, in my opinion, is overblown. Much of that fear stems from inadequate or sensational reporting (and yes, journalists have been part of the problem). While I don’t think the danger of misuse, in terms of privacy, is more or less than with other technologies, it still behooves our community to operate in a responsible manner. There are risks with flying any aircraft, and it’s necessary to keep safe the people we’re trying to inform. That’s where the code of ethics comes in.
Since this new field arrives at the intersection of two existing professional fields, journalism and technology, I developed our current code of ethics after observing codes from those communities. There were a lot of great things in these codes, but I thought I would go a step further and provide a framework. Many codes provide a clear list of guidelines, but what would really help “drone journalists” is a checklist – not unlike a checklist you’d make before operating a UAS. Checklists have a flow to them, they have a hierarchy. Applying that flow to a code of conduct makes it easier to assess the many ethical concerns you get when combining different professional fields.
You’re currently involved in a grant with the National Science Foundation that helps to train K-12 teachers. What work do you do with this program? What is the goal of the program?
These collaborations take on many different forms. We’ve had University of Illinois entomology graduate students bring fascinating insects into elementary classrooms to teach about biology and bio-mechanics. High school students have engaged in robotics competitions, and started up biodiesel plants. We’ve created exciting new STEM courses in our partner schools. We’ve cataloged more than 30 of these collaborations over the years, and part of my job is to keep track of those as a communications specialist. I also track collaborations using social network analysis, to observe how information resources are spread throughout a school district. But the collaboration I’m most involved with is the Drones for School program, which challenges students to design, build, program, and fly UAS for photomapping missions.The National Science Foundation has supported our grant, EnLiST, at the University of Illinois for five years now. EnLiST, which stands for Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and learning, has helped more than 100 teachers in the state of Illinois to become more entrepreneurial in their schools and community. We’re devoted to developing entrepreneurial teacher-leaders, who find partners in other STEM teachers, in school administration, in community groups, and in businesses, to engage in collaborations to transform science education.
Some of your work involves speaking to various organizations about UAS technology and journalism strategies. How do you think UAS will be used in journalism?
Right off the bat, it’s easy to see small UAS as a versatile and cost-effective replacement for manned news helicopters. Small UAS are gifted with the ability to venture in many places where it isn’t practical or safe to send a manned helicopter. One can be purchased outright for the cost of one hour of manned flight. And the size means that a journalist can store it in a backpack, travel to wherever the news is, and deploy it on site. That also means a journalist can position himself at a safer distance from a conflict, but still provide valuable information to the public. So even as a simple replacement for manned systems, there’s great potential.
Your work has also focused on data journalism, how can these techniques be combined with UAS to improve journalism?
Another application we’re trying to promote at the PSDJ, and on our website at DroneJournalism.org, is using the unmanned aircraft as a means to collect data remotely from the air. What I mean is that if a journalist is trying to inform citizens on how their town is being affected by a flood, a small UAS could be deployed to map the town in middle of the crisis. It would be extremely valuable to know whether the way out of town is under water, whether a bridge is out, or whether the town grocery store is flooded, all without putting anyone at risk of being swept away.
That’s a simple example of using a UAS to collect data, but there are more complex applications that can help investigative reporting. For example, a UAS can measure the size of an oil spill and quantify its impact on the environment. Equipped with near-infrared sensors, UAS can keep tabs on the health of developing forests, and detect changes from land development. What I’m really talking about is evidence-based journalism, the idea that we can inform the public with facts and numbers, instead of sound-bites and hearsay. It’s a tall order for journalists, because we’re getting into the territory of scientists and university researchers. But if we form partnerships around this technology with those experts, we can apply the UAS to shed light on immediate problems facing our communities.
What do you think is the greatest benefit of UAS for the public?
Information. Unmanned systems offer an unparalleled ability to provide low-cost, high-resolution information about the world around us. How can we best use the Earth we’ve been given? How are we using it now? How are people affecting it, and how is it affecting people? The barrier to this information is being lowered, and more people are going to have access to the important data that can drive crucial decisions in our communities.
A close second would be safety. The nature of the news cycle makes us highly sensitive to fluke accidents, and oblivious to the thousands of safe flights that happen every day. So it’s important to highlight that unmanned aircraft can deliver urgently-needed medicine in hazardous situations. They can drop water on the growing number of wildfires in the US. They’ve already saved lives by identifying injured people
What is your opinion of the word “drone,” and why do you use it in your programs?
I don’t think the media, as a whole, has been reporting responsibly on new technologies, especially UAS. Part of that is because sensationalism sells. And part of that is because journalists haven’t really had enough hands-on experience to report accurately on this technology. But historically, the word “drone” was never associated with a weapons system.
If we’re going on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, a drone simply is a remote controlled boat or aircraft. Nikola Tesla was one of the pioneers of this technology, having demonstrated a remote controlled boat in Madison Square Garden in 1898. People were understandably spooked by the technology, because radio technology wasn’t widely adopted. A reporter asked the inevitable question about its use for warfare, and Nikola became irate. His drone was meant to do “the laborious work of man” instead.
Even as armed forces developed the technology in the interwar period, the drone was developed as an aerial target to hone the skill of combat aviators. It was something to be shot at, and was not meant to shoot other things. The USAF still uses drones as aerial targets, such as the QF-4 and the upcoming QF-16, which are converted jet fighters.
We begin with the word “drone” in our programs, however, because that is what the public is familiar with. But in the Drones for Schools program, we educate our students about how “drone” isn’t always the right word to use. Much as it is understood in the aviation industry, this technology is much more than remote-controlled aircraft. They can fly themselves for much of a mission. They can collect or send sensor data automatically. They sometimes transmit data to ground control stations, which helps with mission planning and decision-making. They have more in common with autonomous robots than they do with remote-controlled toys. So we walk our students through the UAS acronym and explain what it means.
It’s challenging to encourage the public to use this three-letter acronym, when “drone” has taken up such a share of headspace. Whatever the name is, my hope is that people will begin to imagine the many ways in which this exciting technology can increase human potential.