Juneau, meet J.E.S.S.

• Empire takes news to new heights with unmanned aerial vehicle • UAV technology allows for aerial photography, video

What’s that in the sky? Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s your friendly Juneau Empire unmanned aerial vehicle.


The Empire unveiled its UAV to the public Wednesday during the Celebration 2014 canoe landing at Sandy Beach. It's a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter, a UAV equipped with a proprietary camera named JESS, short for Juneau Empire Sky Spotter.

Publisher Rustan Burton believes JESS will help the newspaper take local coverage to new heights.

The opportunity to introduce a UAV as a tool for news-gathering and visual storytelling “actually just kind of fell in our lap,” he said.

Tim Foster, an employee of the Capital City Weekly for the past six years, told CCW circulation manager Jack Marshall he had purchased a UAV and camera, and Marshall thought it might be a useful tool for the Empire.

“Jack grabbed me by the arm and whisked me upstairs,” Foster said with a laugh.

After a handful of meetings, the deal was sealed and Foster found himself in position to get paid to do what he loves.

“We understood right away there was some real potential,” Burton said.

Using a UAV for photography opens an opportunity to expand how the Empire gathers and presents news.

“It gives us the power to look at things from different angles we’ve never seen before,” Burton said.

Empire photographer Michael Penn has worked closely with Foster, directing photography and video, then editing the footage to one-minute clips.

A professional photographer for more than 30 years, Penn started his career shooting in black and white. He’s experienced the rise of color printing and digital photography, and now UAV technology.

“It’s a little bit different from my normal job of producing stills to tell a story, but it’s another tool for visual storytelling. I think it’ll be around for a while,” Penn said. “For me it’s been a new challenge and it’s been a lot of fun to get to play with this thing and work on video.”

For the projects so far, Foster is the pilot and Penn directs.

“I’m using my photography background and storytelling background to direct him to the best visuals we can make,” Penn said.

Foster had been interested in model aircraft since childhood and was keeping an eye on UAV technology. He first invested in an inexpensive microcopter he flew around his home and outdoors, but when he saw a YouTube video about the DJI Phantom, “The technology blew me away.”

“I love the whole process, beginning to end,” Foster said. “First and foremost, the flying of it. Second, learning from Michael how to tell a story in a picture. And the final project, seeing how (Empire staff) put it all together.”

Foster and Penn have worked together on about seven projects so far. Penn said they shot about 30 to 45 minutes of raw footage for each video, then edited it down to about a minute and a half. The norm likely will be a combination of ground and aerial footage, offering viewers somewhat of a three-dimensional view of their town and events. Videos can be found on the Empire’s website at juneauempire.com.

“I take documenting our community and turn it into a 2-D object that still brings the emotions and the flavor across — and now I’m doing it more in a three-dimensional world, in a way,” Penn said.

The view is unlike what the Empire has captured before, though Penn often shoots with his camera perched atop a monopod, held over his head.

“It’s a completely new perspective on things they’ve seen before, seen on a regular basis,” Burton said. “It’s fascinating to watch the videos. I’ve been to Sandy Beach before, but I’ve never seen it like this.”

It’s a smooth view, too. The camera is on a three-axis gimbal mount, allowing for stable video and a 140-degree field of view.

“No matter what he’s doing with the (quad)copter, what the winds are doing, the shot stays steady, which is pretty cool,” Penn said. “It makes it a really enjoyable viewing experience.”

Video has been the Empire’s focus so far, though the camera is capable of taking still photographs as well.

Even with all the excitement about the possibilities using a UAV offers, the Empire hasn’t overlooked the responsibilities that come along with putting this new technology to use. Burton said the Empire has set up guidelines with a goal of protecting the privacy of Juneau residents.

“We won’t be floating through people’s backyards,” Burton said. “We’ll use discretion and be very sensitive about the privacy of individuals. We’ll follow every law there is. And we’re just going to be ethical with it.”

As with any new technology, legislators may scramble to draft laws.

“As you look at what’s going on with UAVs, they’re struggling with boundaries on these,” Burton said. “We don’t want to be the example that is used for why legislation needs to be passed against UAV operation.”

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the use of this new technology around the Empire offices, and Burton is hopeful the excitement will be shared by Juneau residents.

“Ultimately, we don’t really know what’s at the end of this road yet, but we feel like it’s something that has a lot of buzz,” he said. “It’s exciting and full of new opportunities. We’re going to ride this UAV and see where it goes.”

Follow this link to see all videos from JESS


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