Students experiment with 'drone journalism'

Students capture aerial view of flag unfurling during Paly football opener

When students at Palo Alto High School unfurled a huge, sky-facing American flag on the field before last Friday's football game, a drone — operated by student journalists at a baseball field nearby — hovered above.

The 76-second "video exclusive" aerial view of the flag unfurling, captured by the drone's camera and posted on the student website Paly Voice, was a first, as local students explore the new frontier of "drone journalism."

Paly obtained its first battery-operated, remote-control drone, resembling a large four-winged insect spanning 18 inches, about a year ago. Journalism teacher Paul Kandell happened to notice it in an airport Brookstone store and was struck by the $300 price, which, he thought, "was within striking distance for a student publication."

He'd read a bit about emerging non-military uses of drones and wanted to explore the technology with his students.

When he introduced the drone to his Paly journalism class, Kandell said: "My students found the idea very compelling — it had a lot of instant 'boy appeal.'"

Class members researched the military and non-military history of drones, including safety, privacy and legal concerns, presenting their findings at a spring student journalism conference in San Francisco and again over the summer to students participating in a journalism camp at Stanford, where Kandell was a faculty member.

Students experimented with the drone over Lake Lagunita, in an empty theater at Paly and in some outdoor spaces on campus. But the drones — a second one was added last spring (a $700 Phantom that has a range of 1,000 feet) — "were often in disrepair so we haven't always been able to achieve the plans we've come up with," Kandell said.

Last Friday night, things worked out.

Paly Voice staffers Christopher Hinstorff, Max Bernstein and Ed Mei gathered on the baseball field with the Phantom drone.

A fourth student journalist, Jared Schwartz, stationed himself with the stars and stripes on the football field, waiting to signal his colleagues to launch the drone at just the right moment.

With only 10 minutes of battery life, it couldn't be set aloft too soon.

After one false start — which required Mei to hurriedly recharge the drone batteries from an outlet in the baseball dugout — they launched the drone straight up over the empty baseball field, its camera angled toward the football stadium.

The crew on the baseball field kept the drone in view at all times. From the football field, Schwartz said, he could see the drone, but just barely.

"I was kind of looking for it so I saw it, but no one would have noticed it if they hadn't been looking for it," he said.

When Schwartz gave a second signal, Hinstorff eased the drone back down to the baseball field and ran it back to the classroom.

"We didn't know we got the perfect shot until we brought it down and came back to the Voice room, plugged it into the computer and looked at it," he said.

"And then we saw we got the flag." Even if it was slightly wobbly.

Kandell said he enjoys "bringing Silicon Valley into my classroom, getting my students to push the envelope with new technology.

"I think a lot of students realize it's a piece of the future they can connect with here," he said. "Their future careers could be being built right now.

"There was a lot of skepticism — people said, 'We're going to buy that? And do what?' — even until last weekend. But after that (flag) shot, a lot of people said: 'Oh, I see it now. That was worth it.'"

What's next for the drones? Students have pondered various possibilities, Kandell said.

"You could fly it up and interview somebody sticking their head out of the second floor of the Tower Building, if you had them on the phone, so we've toyed with ideas like that.

"Or for a story about the tower itself — you could get images of it people have not had before.

"This has helped students imagine things in a new way."

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Like this comment
Posted by Student of Palo Alto High
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm

The drone stuff is pretty sick! Sometimes I see them flying at school

Like this comment
Posted by Go Paly!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 21, 2013 at 9:59 am

So proud of the Paly kids for being in on this cool stuff! Love you guys!

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