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We intend to use aerial camera drones to film the killing fields of Syria to provide a unique view of the war there.

A scene that has become a hallmark image of war coverage is that of the talking head, backdropped by some generic chaos, furiously narrating a scene that his cameraman is simply unable to capture. This high pressure fireside storytelling is what we have come to expect of battlefield journalism. The camera contributes almost nothing to the reporting task.

Recently, a small unmanned aerial vehicle was used to capture compelling footage of riots in Poland.

Elsewhere, a Texas man used an unmanned aerial vehicle to catch a meat packing facility illegally dumping waste into a local river.

  

The results speak for themselves. By using similar techniques to those used by the filmmakers behind the Polish aerial riot footage we will capture scenes too large in scale for someone on the ground to photograph and, in doing so, will make the battles and pivotal moments of war comprehensible to the casual viewer without the need for constant verbal interpretation.

We intend to construct a highly capable drone with which to capture the scenes on the ground. It will use sophisticated sensor systems to achieve long range as well as semi-autonomous flight. They will be hardened against the hazards of the battlefield and will be designed to navigate not just high altitude orbits but also tight, weaving paths between structures. All of this will be achieved while maintaining a generous camera payload capacity by means of lightweight composites and modern engine design.

With this machine we will deliver a startling image of the war in Syria. A complete one.

The photograph serving as the cover image for this project was taken by me from the top of a microwave communications tower. A sniper had waited until I had climbed all the way to the top before opening fire. He waited so that he'd be able to fire on me as I hastily climbed back down out of the tower. I almost messed myself but was able to capture a few precious seconds of the type of unambiguous footage I described earlier. 

As you can see, the image I captured was remarkably illustrative of the entire battle taking place on the Dafnia front line in Libya. The trench line is easily visible as is the blockade line of technicals occupying it. You can see courier vehicles shuttling back and forth between the front line and rear areas. The video (clipped for the sake of personal dignity to the pertinent parts) follows. 

In hindsight I should not have stayed there to complete the panorama. If you want to know what swear words I used on the climb down you'll have to buy me a drink first. The swear words I used on top of the tower, however, are complimentary. Due to wind and the absence of information bearing sound the audio usually gets blanked for footage like this.

I also included the ending because of how incredibly surreal it was. That was how people got around. Thewar (Libyan freedom fighter) ridesharing. Freelancers tend to enjoy much greater access than large news teams. Notice how my Arabic was utter crap at this stage (June 17, 2011). It wasn't until later that it got better. 

I don't usually edit my videos- some project funds will go towards something to more professionally produce segments like this. I apologize for the choppy transition. Content always motivated me more than composition.

Later, I had a fighter stop me later and point at a dusty patch near the coast from my video and say to me: 'My brother was fighting there!' 

From my vantage I was able to see clearly all the way to the sea. This footage was obtained at nearly the expense of my life. The climb down was harrowing. Jumping would have meant shattered legs and possible death. I survived because I was lucky. Several large fires burning that day probably altered his firing solution on that tower. He clearly had it staked out as a trap and dialed in. It's the only variable I can identify that would have changed his engagement envelope.

When an environment is too hazardous for human beings it is wise to instead send a machine. Huge numbers of journalists were killed or wounded trying to cover Libya. Being wounded became a lot more normal than being healthy. Captivity at the hands of the Qaddafi regime was commonplace.

Aerial drone technology is something very familiar to me. I have a master's degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University and a bachelor's in the same from the University of Texas. I was active with the University of Texas aerial robotics team who sent drones to the international aerial robotics competition at Ft. Benning, Georgia to compete in the International Aerial Robotics Competition.

The industrial drone airframe that I intend to use is sold assembled. To help preserve our operational lifespan I have to keep some details, specific vendors and parts, secret. The Al Assad regime has so far been extremely hostile to foreign journalists attempting to cover the war in Syria. The count is, so far, one probable murder and two Turkish journalists that Al Assad is attempting to ransom back to Turkey in exchange for a defected general. This is in addition to recent shelling deaths and injuries- Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Paul Conroy, and others.

Given Al Assad's history of targeting journalists I do not want to risk an easy electronic warfare kill on my drone because I was overly long winded in the pitch nor do i want to risk them locating our ground station. It is a quality, long range industrial drone helicopter. The payload will be a camera package designed and integrated myself.

The cameras themselves will be 1080p capable high zoom visible light cameras mounted coaxially with FLIR cameras for night operation. The camera bay itself is highly modular making the drone easily adaptable. Payload can vary by mission type meaning that the drones can have a long service life. Upgradable technology is a capability built into the design.

The video broadcast encryption is one of the most critical components and it has been carefully addressed. Without it, just anybody could tune in and use the video stream for their own ends. This will make sure nobody can appropriate our drone feed to achieve tactical advantage or find out where we're launching from and have a Yak-130 strafe us.

I will be traveling with two other experienced journalists, another photographer and a writer, who will help ensure that our drone's capabilities are not neglected.

The control range on this drone is long enough that it actually outranges many artillery systems that we'll find being commonly used in Syria. We will be evaluating and selecting an autopilot system based on the outcome of our funding drive. Presently we are examining several that meet our requirements. The goal is "over the horizon" autonomous operation of our camera vehicle but due to expense the current design only calls for stabilization and telemetry hardware and not a full waypoint navigating autopilot. This detail may change, as may the number of fielded drones, depending on funding.

It should be possible to trace an artillery rocket from point of impact all the way to point of launch in one continuous take with this drone even if it only meets its worst case predicted performance.

I feel I offered compelling evidence and equally compelling arguments for this project. It is my hope that you answer them with funding. Beyond 'which reporter has a sunburn' the camera did not offer much in Libya. 

It is my sincere desire to change this.

FAQ

  • Not necessarily. We're spectrally obscure enough and low power enough that unless they get very detailed intelligence as to our nonstandard radio hardware they will never see or hear us. As always, luck tends to favor the bold. Let's hope the Al Assad electronic warfare organ isn't as well developed as it appears.

    These Al Assad guys are animals. The body count is rapidly mounting and their assassinations of journalists have been specific and very deliberate. Everything from betrayals of trust leading to murder to simple kidnappings to special fire missions- they are bent on silencing any media channel leading out of Syria that does not belong to them with lethal force. In some cases they even use captured journalists like money before killing them, attempting to ransom them back to their countries of origin. Two Turkish journalists enjoyed this fate. Presently Al Assad is trying to trade them for a defected Syrian general residing in Turkey.

    More funding means more safety and better security. The smallest amount I can do this with in reasonable safety is what I have asked for. More is always better.

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  • For the love of god, no. I don't know Matthew Van Dyke, either. For months I had him confused with this guy I met named Manu Brabo. Libya was a very unique environment and many hard lessons were learned. Mostly about people. The interview I did, the videos I posted, and the chat I had with NPR should answer most of your questions about why I ended up with a rifle in my hand in addition to a camera. Lots of other journalists, too. There are varying degrees of professional rancor about this. Some guys like CNN use professional security teams. According to one of the BBC guys I met on the Al Entisar inbound from Malta they often act as front line combat units, though he was probably just starting trouble. No compelling evidence was offered.

    The CNN crew I met on the Al Entisar en route to Malta two months earlier was actually very friendly and helpful and the rest of the crews- FOX news and a totally different BBC team continuously supplied me with cigarettes over the duration of the trip and I managed to totally deplete several of them. They were very amicable. Thank you very, very much. I owe you one.

    The real question will be when the climate changed. Syria became deadly very quickly for journalists. Qaddafi's Libya kept them alive and imprisoned, for the most part, if they were not killed in the initial military action that resulted in their capture. I think that they probably had more to lose with regard to trade relationships.

    Iraq and Afghanistan were similarly lethal for journalists in the post-9/11 era. Kidnappings and beheadings were common. The only place that I don't have any information on is Serbia and how journalists there fared. Based on footage I've seen it looks like journalists were considered game animals there too though they were not explicitly targeted. Nobody hunted them.

    And yet here we have Syria, a state, targeting journalists explicitly. Yes there are several countries that work like this. Syria, I think, is just the first one that has also given rise to news stories that people would be interested in covering.

    Every Libyan you'll meet will say that it was journalists who enabled the revolution there to succeed. The publicity provided by journalists is what allowed them to gain such advantages as NATO close air support. Many journalists will agree.

    I think the Syrians grasp this principle of publicity leading to grumblings among the populations of various Arab league and NATO member nations. The fact is that their foreign intelligence is in fact good enough that they don't need to rely on wandering journalists to tell them what is going on outside. They only move out of accountability to the desires of their own people. They prefer to move as little as possible.

    Being a journalist, it's a little like breaking a pinata open. Everybody already knows what is inside except for all of those wide eyed little kids (they aren't really, it's a metaphor) who were kept in the dark by their parents. Like that except more horrifying and you've about got it.

    Yes, you're repeating things that they already know but you're doing it in such a way that their population hears as well and then... aren't their hands tied. But who was hiding what from who? Kind of demented, really.

    I have a feeling that the public reason Al Assad will offer is 'They were all spies!' or 'They were all roving troublemakers!' or something to season their action in an attempt to make it palatable to most people's sensibilities. Preserve the illusion of a stable and secure world.

    They're smart enough to distinguish one person from another. Journalists are unique. They come from all over the world from many different countries. Targeting all of them just means that you're trying to hide something. All of them being on the same team is actually impossible and I'm sure Al Assad can grasp the nuances of this situation. It's not like they're hard to take prisoner and they did just kill a few after allowing them into their country and then taking them on a car ride.

    Maybe the mistake is in searching for a change in the way battlefield photojournalists have lived and worked. Maybe the only difference now is how well publicized the deaths of journalists are.

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  • No. If they did they would pay me and I wouldn't need to seek funding on kickstarter for my unique photo projects. In fact, I think they have their own in-house drones. I would also demand better health coverage.

    Finally, I'd also be able to get Bjarki Gilmartin the mine action guy that iPhone 4(S) I owe him due to losing a bet pertaining to the composition of a grad rocket. One day. Probably an iPhone 5.

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  • We're going to look into insuring our equipment. This will be built into the cost of the drone. We are still in the process of examining insurers. Rest assured that we will make every effort to ensure the drone operates for as long as possible but ground fire and surface to air missiles are not something we can predict. With careful mission planning we can minimize these risks but you can never eliminate them. There's also a chance we'll all be killed by shelling, too. We manage our risks. I have confidence that we will produce stunning footage.

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