African SkyCAM, Africa’s first drone journalism team, is responsible for the projects #KeepCalmAndVisitKenya and a political rally counting app. Its latest addition, Dandora Dumpsite, is due to be featured as a video story by VICE News.
Its founder, Dickens Onditi Olewe, developed this “eye in the sky” device two years ago when Kenya’s floods were the focus of the media.
Speaking at the launch of the Civic Drone Centre, Dickens said “I noticed how the Kenyan media was covering the stories. You couldn’t really tell the scale of the flooding.”
Drones are the low-cost alternative to a helicopter, which liberate journalists and simply allow the media to show accurate and scalable representations of what was really happening.
Dickens found project partner Ben Kreimer through the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) in New York. This allowed him to be the brains behind the journalism and Ben to be the technology and piloting mastermind.
Funded by the Africa News Innovation Challenge, this frontline reporting method has since been used by the pair to showcase landscapes for the Kenyan tourist board to becoming a verification tool to confront politicians who tend to “throw numbers about” rather than produce more realistic figures.
Initially set up under the name of AfricanDRONE, there were a number of concerns regarding any negative connotations that could be associated. “I had lots of questions about safety and privacy,” said Dickens, who soon changed the name to African SkyCAM. “The media obviously still use the alarming angle on drone stories.”
Flyingdonkey.org, which Dickens refers to as “Amazon on a grander scale,” were developing a new system of delivery drones in Africa, brought to an abrupt halt by the government and regulation. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, who used UAVs for wildlife conservation and ecological monitoring, unfortunately met the same fate. These restrictions were on the same day when Ben met Dickens in Nairobi to begin filming for the political rally counting app, a project aimed at collecting data across larger areas and producing a much-needed sense of perspective.
Currently a John S. Knight journalism Fellow at Stanford University, Dickens is now looking at ways in which we can create friendlier legal frameworks around drones. The operation of UAVs has been put on halt, insisting that those responsible for any flying of UAV’s must report to the Ministry of Defence in Kenya due to concerns over security.
“I like what’s happening in the UK here, as you have bodies which are working with aviation authorities,” said Dickens. “I don’t think it is the best drone operation law but it is a law that allows things to at least be tried and tested. I want to take that to Africa.”
Dickens summed this up with a quote from Professor Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said “journalism needs to get a table so that free press rights and free speech rights are part of the conversation” in evolving drone legalisation. A statement which has been given the thumbs up by many UAV enthusiasts today.
So where does the future lie for African SkyCAM and the legalities of UAVs?
“Africa issuing blanket bans for UAVs, I think is an opportunity for me” says Dickens. It is currently a case of “respond to innovation with fear and shut it down”. Now is the time to encourage bodies to voice those concerns and address them.
There are a vast number of opportunities in working with UAVs, providing that appropriate legislations are put in place. Although funding has ran out for African SkyCAM, they are actively engaging with the Civic Drone Centre, as well as other partners, where there is potential to “develop software which can actually be tested on the ground.”
“I think virtual reality could be the next big thing,” said Dickens. “Just imagine being immersed in Syria and experiencing that.”
Drone technology may not quite appeal to government bodies right now, but it does have the power to “really fire up the imagination.”