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Drones are not just for killing

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Jonathan Thompson | May 08, 2013 06:10 PM

I like drones.

There, I said it, and in doing so I have made myself a pariah to many of my liberal friends. Because to them, a drone is a sinister, cowardly killing machine, buzzing around the skies of Pakistan sans pilot, just waiting to rain death from the sky. It is horrible. But then, so is sending a manned aircraft to do exactly the same thing, or a cruise missile, for that matter, which is really just a drone that blows up.

And then there are those for whom drones are tools used by the government to spy in our windows and find out what we’re eating for dinner, kind of like smart meters.

But I digress. Think beyond those applications for a minute to what drones actually are: Sophisticated remote control aircraft with extra capabilities, most notably (aside from shooting people or launching missiles) taking photographs or shooting video from a bird’s eye view at a fraction of the cost and danger of helicopters, airplanes or spy satellites. And that makes them very useful for all sorts of folks, including wildlife biologists, farmers, archaeologists, (and, yes, cops and government spies) and, especially intriguing for those of us in the Goat offices, journalists. You can also use them as burrito delivery machines, which is cool, too.

Let’s start with the biologists and other researchers. Back in 2010, two Idaho Fish & Game biologists and a pilot were killed when their helicopter crashed. They were doing an aerial survey of salmon spawning nests. Wanting to avoid a repeat, Idaho Power Company now uses drones to do similar salmon counts. And as the New York Times reported this week, the USGS is using them for similar work.

Activists are flying the little machines around for their work, too. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals uses them to keep an eye on hunters. And hunters sometimes shoot them down. There’s even a whole Website devoted to conservation drones.

But I’m most excited by the possibilities for news reporters. Call them the poor man’s helicopter, if you will. Or the modern journalist’s chopper (okay, I know, poor man = modern journalist). A decent pilot -- and it’s my understanding that these things aren’t easy to fly -- could get not just nice scenic shots for videos, but also close up aerial looks at wildfires, open pit mines, toxic waste dumps, wildlife and the like. I’m not the only one that’s fired up about it. The University of Nebraska set up a drone journalism lab back in 2011, and other journalism schools have been following suit. Actual drone journalism tends to be happening more overseas, because the U.S. FAA still doesn’t allow general or commercial use of these things, though universities and scientists have been given the green light.

The FAA is worried about drones crashing into other airplanes, or maybe into innocent bystanders on the ground. But there are also privacy concerns. But those are easily avoided: You just need a Stealth Wear Hoodie!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, I leave you with some newsy and not-so-newsy videos shot with the help of drones.

This video about the drought was put together by University of Nebraska students with the help of drones:

This one became famous as one of the earlier examples of drone journalism -- a riot in Poland:

And this is just a lot of fun. Turn up the volume, put it on full-screen and sit back and relax...

Jonathan Thompson has recently proclaimed himself drone editor at High Country News. Now he just needs his own drone and a flying lesson. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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