What started as a military program to do battlefield reconnaissance without endangering the life of a human pilot, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can now be heard buzzing the skies of every entertainment venue or event in Milwaukee.

The common bit of advice offered to prospective hobbyists who are interested into getting a drone is to buy two, one to fly and one to crash. As with any technology, it continues to improve and become cheaper which lowers the bar for adoption. Consumer drones are typically used for video, which still requires a level of skill to operate the vehicle, position the camera, and not collide with obstacles in the process.

Early this year, the Milwaukee Independent added a drone to an inventory of tools for documenting news stories. The purpose was more focused on aerial photography over video. There are limitations to what a drone can capture, but it also offers some interesting possibilities to share unique views. There are locations with no nearby elevated structures that offer a big picture of the area. These perspective images would supplement the traditional photojournalism style of being close and immersive.

After a few test flights with positive results, one unexpected discovery was made. Traditionally, grabbing still frames from video has offered very poor quality. Images look like they were lifted from a video tape, circa 1998.

In evaluating the process, it was learned that a frame grab from the 4K Ultra HD video had such high resolution that it rivaled the still photo feature of the drone. So, instead of switching between filming and still formats, and missing valuable photo opportunities while trying to position the drone as its battery drains, it was decided to let the video run continuously but fly with pauses to record clear imagery.

For previous mural projects covered by the Milwaukee Independent, to be up close and personal required being on a lift with the artist as it went 100 feet up the side of a building. There is no other place to be to record such an intimate view of the creative craft. However, it is also a very narrow and confined space that offers a limited view.

For reporting on the Victory Garden Initiative mural by Stacey Williams-Ng, it was the first real-world test of combining drone images with feet-on-the-ground images. The byproduct of the process meant that there was a great deal of video left over after pulling still frames from it. This short video is a compilation of footage, as a companion to telling the story of the mural painting process on location at VGI’s Urban Farm.