Update on previous post “Drone Journalism—Occupy Airspace”

According to an article on Alternet, Occupy Wall Street livestreamer Tim Pool is using a Parrot AR drone to livestream aerial images of protests, exactly what I’d been fantasizing about in my previous post on the topic.

Parrot AR drone

(Okay, well, not exactly. See further down in the post for “exactly”.)

The small, lightweight, four-rotor craft is controlled with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch or Android phone. Two cameras, one facing down and the other facing forward, are built in, allowing control from your phone’s touch video screen.

According to the Alternet piece, Pool has modified the software to stream live video to the internet so that we can watch the action as it unfolds. This is the most important part. Recording for later uploading is useful, but it is the real-time feeds that matter.

When I discuss the drone idea with people, they always ask what will happen if the cops bust the person with the controller. Alternet again:

Pool is attempting to police-proof the device: “We are trying to get a stable live feed so you can have 50 people controlling it in series. If the cops see you controlling it from a computer they can shut you down, but then control could automatically switch to someone else.”

He is also apparently working on a 3G controller so it can be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world. As it comes from the factory, the drone sets up its own wifi network, which the iPhone (etc.) picks up. According to the company’s technical specs, the range is 160′ in any direction, so you’d have to be very close to police lines in order to film, say, an Occupy encampment being evicted.

The saving feature is that, being controlled from the phone’s touch screen, your activity appears indistinguishable from anyone else live-tweeting or blogging or uploading photos during an event. I.e. you’re staring at your phone, pecking away with your thumbs. No need to carry around a big, obvious controller with a joy stick in your hands. You’re not even looking at the drone itself. This is where a series of prearranged hand-offs between operators would be extremely effective. If the cops ever get too close, the next operator can take over as you pocket your phone and saunter away.

The battery life is advertised as a mere 12 minutes, but one reviewer claimed only 8 minutes. This is barely long enough to do much.

So, no, I won’t be ringing up more credit card debt to order one just yet. All three reviews on Amazon were negative, including customer service reviews. It was described as very breakable and basically a toy. Which is what it was designed to be, after all. The controller software has augmented reality, so you can make it appear to shoot lasers in the image on your screen.

Now, that might be kind of fun, flying over something, pretending to shoot lasers at it, but it’s kind of like those “Rocket Launcher” stickers they used to sell in mini-marts and auto parts stores. I had one on the emergency flasher switch on my old van and I’d amuse myself in traffic threatening to push it if someone was driving like a jerk in front of me. I mean, I wanted a real rocket launcher in my van for people like that!

* * *

Draganflyer

So, this on the other hand, is more like it. The Draganflyer, according to the company website, is a miniature aircraft for commercial/industrial aerial video and photography. It can carry over two pounds and has a unloaded flight time of 20 minutes. A number of cool cameras are available to mount to it and it’s set up for video downlinking. I couldn’t find any specs on the maximum distance, but it says the maximum speed is 30mph, so it must be controllable for quite some distance or it would zoom out of range fast.

Here’s a video of it in action.

I don’t think I’ll be getting one of these delivered any time soon either. When no prices are listed and you’re asked to email for a price quote, you know it’s expensive. (Offers from millionaires to buy me one will not be turned down.)

Robokopter

So far, the Robokopter is looking like the best option, but no idea if it can be set to livestream. Ah, and this time I found a .pdf with the tech specs in English.

Payload is small, but it seems to come with a camera built in and flies for 15 to 40 minutes. Based on the videos on the site, it obviously goes far and high. The video below, as well as the one in my earlier post on this topic gives some idea of the tactical utility of these things.

One thing I hadn’t thought of is sound. These gadgets are a bit noisy, so stealth is out except in a noisy protest type environment. More importantly, the motor noise means that audio captured will be pretty useless. If you’re livestreaming with one of these, you’d want to be able to turn off or dim the copter sound and be able to voice over what’s going on.

Price for the cheapest model is 4500 Euros, or about US$5900, without the camera. The next size up, the Pro 1 with a 16 megapixel camera costs about US$7800. Yeah, not cheap either. Who’s up for funding one? I wonder if we could get them to configure a stock model for livestreaming, maybe with a bigger battery pack and 3G controlling via an iPhone app too?

This just in: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is using fixed-wing drones to locate Japanese whaling ships off of the coast of Australia in order to disrupt the whale hunt. Now if those drones could only fire real laser weapons…

 

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