It's pretty well-established that Occupy Wall Street is no fan of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, but after one Occupy-friendly videographer test-flew a video-capturing drone he hopes to use to film protests, it looks like they've got something very specific in common. Tim Pool, who operated a widely viewed live feed the day police cracked down on protesters in Zuccotti Park and again during the massive Nov. 17 protest, posted video Tuesday night from his newest reporting tool, which he's calling the Occucopter. It's basically the same device reporters at The Daily have been using since August: A toy helicopter that comes stock with a video camera. It's pretty fun to watch the test flights, and footage of the protests Pool plans to shoot on the Occucopter will likely be dramatic. But so far, the Occupy legal team isn't holding its breath for a groundbreaking new tool to capture evidence of misconduct.
The Occucopter is actually a modified Parrot AR 300, a four-rotor, remote-controlled helicopter available for $300 at Walmart or Amazon or the like. It's the same machine The Daily uses. Al Jazeera also has one they're kicking around the office. As the Village Voice reported last week, artist Mike Brown donated the machine to Pool in order to better cover the Occupy protests. Pool and a friend modified its software to provide a constant stream, and Pool said they're working on a modification that would make it controllable from anywhere in the world. On Tuesday he recorded the first bit of footage the machine captured:
Here's a look at the machine from the ground:
We caught up with Pool via telephone Wednesday as he rode the bus to Washington, D.C. for what he hoped was the Occucopter's first field test. The purpose of the machine, he said, was to monitor police activity like the so-called RoboKopter did in Poland a couple of weeks ago, but also to monitor the protest itself. "It’s going to be monitoring everybody. If there’s a black bloc, they’re going to get caught too. It’s going to show people the truth, whether that’s wrongdoing by protesters, by police, or by anybody else in the area."
When police cleared protesters from Zuccotti Park, they kept journalists at bay and closed the airspace over lower Manhattan. In his story about the Polish RoboKopter, The New York Times' Robert Mackey wrote, "it is unlikely that the New York Police Department ... would have taken kindly to a flock of drone journalists." And when The Daily debuted its video drones, the question of their legality kind of went unanswered. But Pool says he's done due diligence with the City of New York, and he thinks he can get away with using the Occucopter if he adheres to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines: "we called the city and we were transferred to a bunch of different agencies, but the only thing they could really tell us was that anything above 400 feet is controlled by the FAA, but anything under is a toy." Aside from that, he thinks the machine is small enough that police in a crowd-control situation wouldn't notice it was there. "What are they going to say about a five-ounce thing floating around?"
An Occupy Wall Street lawyer didn't share Pool's optimism that the Occucopter could have captured police misbehavior at Zuccotti Park. "It really depends on the resolution, and whether its digital, whether its enhancable, whether we can identify people," said Martin Stolar, who is representing those 700 protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in October. "It’s mere existence might have some kind of chilling effect on misconduct," he said, but unless it can identify faces, it won't necessarily be a huge help in the courtroom.
As you can see from the above video, the quality's not quite there yet, especially from several hundred feet up. The Polish drone used a high definition camera, Pool said, and the Occucopter still uses the camera with which it came out of the box. But they could mount a better one. "The AR drone has a USB port, so you can hook anything into it. We can put an HD camera on it, and we’re planning on putting a hotspot on it, so you can have a controller and also a stronger broadcast signal."
Yetta Kurland, another Occupy lawyer, also pointed out that, without being in physical possession of the recording device, it could prove hard to vouch for its authenticity. "For example, if there’s a video camera that just is capturing stuff, it might be harder to identify that it actually was in zuccotti park, or what was going on, as opposed to someone snapping a photo and beying able to say, I was there, I took this picture." But she made the point that the law has yet to catch up with technology. "I don’t think we’ve had aerial video evidence in a civil rights case before."
Pool, meanwhile, is already planning for his next drone: A slow-moving camera hoisted by a balloon that he's calling the Occup-eye.