Back in the united states, it seems to be in universities that the most experimentation is underway. This spring, New York University offered a course in Flying Robotic Journalism at its Interactive Telecommunications Program, an interdisciplinary graduate project often compared to the MIT Media Lab. ITP’s production center occupies a high-ceilinged loft on Broadway, where on a recent afternoon instructor Ben Moskowitz was leading eight students in an exploration of how drones can be used for new forms of storytelling.
Moskowitz, a lean, intense 27-year-old who was wearing a gray-striped hoodie, opened a Skype link to London, and Hannen of the BBC appeared on a screen. The slow connection didn’t dampen Hannen’s enthusiasm for the subject. One video he shared with the class featured spectacular, close-up footage of the Christ statue in the hills above Rio de Janeiro that he took as part of a dazzling coverage package during World Cup soccer events. “You can almost see the chisel marks of the sculptor, and obviously you got the changing perspective of the city below and the clouds,” Hannen said, before taking questions from Moskowitz and the students.
Moskowitz started teaching a course on drones after conducting a symposium last year backed by the MacArthur Foundation. It was about civilian uses of small drones and over the course of three days it drew drone makers and experts from academia, the military, and the media as well as hundreds of others to the NYU campus. After the conference’s success, Moskowitz was asked to teach a class devoted to drone journalism. He’s particularly interested in how intended uses of technology get subverted. “The internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack so that the military decision-makers could keep talking. Then the bearded dudes, who were doing LSD at Stanford and Berkeley, got their hands on it. The counterculture proposed an alternate view of what computers could be—the personal computer.”
Though he doesn’t consider himself a journalist—his day job is working for Mozilla, the nonprofit organization that developed the Firefox browser and extols the virtue of the open Web—Moskowitz himself has become a student of technology’s power in storytelling. “It’s about finding interesting journalistic possibilities. There’s going to be a bicycle race or a rally—is there a way we can tell these stories, using this technology? If not, move on. We don’t want the technology to be the horse that pulls the cart. The tool is just another tool in the tool kit. And I think that’s the way it should be. You shouldn’t be biased for the new technology.”
In his class, students are asked to research, plan, fly, shoot, and edit a drone journalism feature, which will eventually be published on the Web. The students have access to several drones and, after the indoor-portion of the class one recent day, they headed out with Moskowitz to a neighboring park, their selected drone packed into a black case.
After some mechanical delays, the flying camera took flight. “It’s a little jumpy right now. I’m not sure why,” Moskowitz said as the white drone lifted up, whirring and whizzing like a swarm of bees. People in the park stopped to stare. Some took pictures or video with their cellphones; a few asked Moskowitz technical questions about its range and price.
Two students, Daniel Soto and Kristina Budelis, were taking turns flying the drone, keeping it nearby and less than 20 feet above ground. But when a park attendant approached the group and told them to leave, Moskowitz was unfailingly polite as he packed up the drone. Satisfied that order had been restored, the attendant left. “This is par for the course with drones. But it’s their discretion. It’s like skateboarding. If the park service says you can’t skate in the park, you can’t skate.”
That attitude might at least have bought Moskowitz some time. Though both the Nebraska and Missouri programs were shut down, so far NYU’s program hasn’t been.
Raphael Pirker is a controversial person within the drone community. His cinematic feats—circling a drone around the Statue of Liberty; diving under the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge—have earned him both admiration and the moniker “aerial anarchist.” One video of New York bridges has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. He draws viewers because of the high quality of his videos and his willingness to take on the FAA; he draws detractors because they think he’s a show-off whose stunts bring unwanted scrutiny to household drones. In conversation, the 29-year-old Austrian appears quite comfortable in his role as agent provocateur. But recently, Pirker became more than that. He became the man who could set drone journalism on a new course.