Eye in the Sky: Drone to Help Students Tell Border Story

Finding new ways to tell a story — from hundreds of feet in the air — students at the University of Arizona will use drone videography and 360-degree virtual reality in the fall to compare security in U.S. border regions along Mexico and Canada.

For Christianna Silva, a UA School of Journalism senior, the unprecedented fall 2016 project cannot come soon enough.

"I'm so excited," Silva said. "As a native southern Arizonan, I'm familiar with the U.S.-Mexico border, but I don't know much about (Canada). I’m looking forward to learning how the U.S. Border Patrol interacts with both U.S. and Canadian citizens."

Students, as hobbyists, plan to fly a footlong white DJI Phantom 4 drone, equipped with GPS technology and a high-definition camera, to gather overhead video and photos to compare and contrast the border areas near Nogales in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, with those 1,200 miles north at Sweet Grass, Montana, and also Coutts, Alberta.

Then, using a 360-degree virtual reality camera on the ground, students will interview citizens and local officials to gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing both borders, such as migration and trade. The multimedia project will enable viewers to feel as if they are present on the borders, while letting students use the latest journalism tools to tell meaningful stories.

"We talk a lot about the southern border and keeping out Mexican immigrants, but we don't talk as much about the Canadian border, and what issues those citizens face," UA journalism multimedia professor Michael McKisson said. "How is it different? Is it more militarized now to keep terrorists out?"

The project, a brainstorm idea of McKisson and fellow journalism professor Celeste González de Bustamante, took the top spot in the UA School of Journalism's first engagement grant competition in early February. The project competition is funded by UA journalism alumnus Al Litzow of Tucson.

In their proposal, the two professors said the end results "will provide a never-before-seen perspective of both the United States' northern and southern border regions."

About 20 juniors, seniors and graduate students from Bustamante's JOUR/LAS 473/573 "Reporting in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands" course will take part in the project during the fall semester. The course is open to juniors and seniors, and no prerequisites are required.

The course will include weekly visits to the Nogales area, where students can practice and fly the drone. In early October, Bustamante and McKisson plan to take 10 from the class on a van trip to Sweet Grass, Montana, the location of a Canadian port of entry. The plan is to spend a few days using the drone and reporting with the 360 camera.

"If you look at a map, it's almost 1,200 miles exactly north of Nogales," McKisson said. To break up the trip, he said, students may also document state borders, such as Utah and Idaho.

Said Bustamante: "With drone footage, there's really nothing like it. You could get a helicopter, which is so much more expensive, and still not get the quality of images that you would with a drone."

Students will aim to produce a multimedia story — with print and online material such as videos, charts and maps — by the end of 2016. Bustamante said it could be part of Security 360°, the school's joint multimedia series with the Tucson Weekly that explores the effect of increasing and sustained militarization along the U.S-Mexico border.

Members of the School of Journalism's Online News Association club also may take part in the drone project.

Bustamante said the project ties perfectly with the UA's 100% Engagement initiative, in which students integrate and apply their knowledge through real-world experiential learning.

"When students look for jobs, not many will be able to say what these students can: 'I worked with a drone and other technology, and I went two borders and covered this very important issue of migration and security,'" she said.

As for traveling 1,200 miles in a van?

"I love long road trips," Silva said.

And the opportunity to cover all those miles with a drone?

"Woo-hoo, I can't wait."


Story by: Mike Chesnick, UA School of Journalism


Published Date: 

04/27/2016 - 2:08pm