Drone hacking and the next generation of storytellers

As we are launching a brand new MA/lab in digital and interactive storytelling (disLAB) at Westminster University, we have been internally debating which are the essential skills that the next generation of storytellers will need in order to succeed in our digital media landscape. The disLAB team, Dr David Dunkley GyimahDr Massimiliano Fusari and myself, are having weekly brainstorms to map out the core values of our course and design something unique.

For me, technical dexterity, group work efficiency, and problem solving attitude are the essential starting points. And the story is the reason, the power, the fuel, that makes all the above necessary.

You wouldn’t embark in a journey without knowing what the destination and purpose of a trip is, but once you are in your transportation vehicle what starts to count is its comfort, its efficiency at reaching the destination and the quality of the experience itself.

So here is the question: how do we create a learning environment where story, technology, group work and design thinking complement each other?

I am starting to think that the fashion for hackathons is probably geared to make us experiment with what is essential in our digital world – strong motive (the story), technical dexterity, group work efficiency, and problem solving attitude.

I have started experimenting with the hack ecosystem through !F Lab, a professional storytelling training I organize with the help of iDrops and Creative Europe, and more specifically with a story hack and prototype jam we organised this November during the Dok Leipzig festival (see the video below which I shot and edited on my mobile to thank the participants for their incredible collaborative effort)



What have I learned during our Prototype Jam?

A few essential points:

  1. the groups that succeeded best had a well balanced mix of skills and efficiently managed to share the workload
  2. the story needs to be clear to all – and especially its wished impact – because this is what motivates the team and releases creative thinking
  3. nothing happens if there are no digital technicians and designers – they are the equivalent of what the camera person and the editor used to be for film

And last weekend I was reminded again of this key elements while participating with my colleague David Dunkley to a drone hack organized in Manchester by the Media Innovation StudioUCLAN and Journalism.co.uk.

After a great contextualisation of where we are at in drone technology today, we were asked to split in groups, build our own drone from scratch and pitch a journalistic story where our drone would play a role.

We started by making a list of the sensors we had in our kit

We started by making a list of the sensors we had in our kit

For our creativity to run as a group it was essential to understand the “drone context” we are in: we sort of know how to flight them, we struggle with security and privacy issues… but more importantly we are not using drones at their full potential!

If we only think of drones as moderately cheap and un-intrusive flying machines that do not risk the lives of our journalists, then we only use them to produce more of the same flying shots. And how many flying shots can we have in a video before getting bored, even if they are beautifully executed?


On the other hand, if we look at drones as mini satellites that can collect data as they record images from above, then they effectively become a powerful way to create stories, and become much more than shooting devices. Drones can becomes a way to research and find out about reality, and therefore a powerful ally for the storyteller. The twist here is to think of technology as an autonomous meaning maker, and an active co-author, rather than as a tool that we control.

With this in mind, my team and I started to brainstorm on what our ideal drone of the future could do, or help us to do, rather than thinking about the shots we would want it to collect.

We came up with concept of a personalized journey data capturer, a drone that would record with its sensors what we cannot see with our own senses (air and noise pollution, dust levels, electromagnetic fields etc..). Our drone would storify it for us through a mixture of live tweets and live video streams to our own web server – where video images (what we could see) and data visualization of the data collected (what we physically cannot see) would elegantly merge in a new image montage.

After this first energy booster – yes, we were all quite excited about our concept – the first reality check hit the team. This was all very well, but if we were not able to build the drone itself there was simply no story at all…

build 1build 2build 3

The way I make sense of this reflection is by going back to the lessons learned after our !F Lab DoK Leipzig hack, and noticing that they were also valid in this drone hack: the story needs to be clear to all and motivates the team (point 2 above), and yet nothing happens if there are no technicians and designers (point 3 above)! Without the super talented team that I had I would have never been able to even start making sense of all the circuits and pieces you need to put together a drone!

Programming the raspberry pi

Programming the raspberry pi to be later attached to the drone

And guess what? We are back to point 1: the groups that succeed best have a well balanced mix of skills… and this is probably one of the reasons that explains why we were the only team that effectively managed to build the drone within the time limit! I has pretty useless when it came to the built, but we had a BBC expert and two great computer engineers… that made the difference!

OK… our drone only flew for a maximum of 10 seconds… but we succeeded, and I can tell you… I thought that was a real miracle!


This brings me to the end of this blog, and to the beginning of my thinking process when I started writing it: what can we teach to the next generation of digital storytellers?

That innovation is a group effort.


Sandra Gaudenzi