Drones in Conservation: An Interview with Jeremy Roberts, Owner of Conservation Media
BY Zacc Dukowitz20 February 2018
Conservation Media uses drones to create stories about wildlife and nature. We wanted to learn more about their work and how they first got started, so we sat down with owner and producer Jeremy Roberts to learn more.
About Conservation Media
Conservation Media has an exclusive focus on conservation storytelling. They work with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon, and the National Wildlife Federation to produce high quality professional products for their digital outreach campaigns.
About Jeremy Roberts
Jeremy Roberts is a digital storyteller formally trained in conservation science, filmmaking, and photography. He serves on the Board of Directors for Filmmakers for Conservation, and is the owner and lead producer at Conservation Media.
Jeremy Roberts, Owner and Producer at Conservation Media
In one sentence, tell us what does Conservation Media does.
Conservation media produces multimedia stories for conservation professionals, including scientists, nonprofits, and government organizations.
How do use drones in your work at Conservation Media?
Conservation work is inherently a landscape scale endeavor. By landscape scale, I mean you have to look at things on a big scale—a landscape scale—to really get your point across about important conservation issues.
Image courtesy of Conservation Media
If you want to engage people in landscape scale issues, the thing you have to do is either fly over in an airplane or get on top of a mountain. Or get footage with a drone.
You need that aerial perspective so that you can see entire areas—massive ecosystems, watersheds, migration corridors, animal movements. You need to be able to see this stuff.
And there’s no better way to do that than with drones.
So, from my perspective, drones are essential for conservation storytelling, because they allow you to tell the conservation story at a landscape scale.
How did you first incorporate drones into your operations?
I used to hire out a lot of drone work before I finally decided that I could probably do a better job getting the exact image I was envisioning by doing it myself.
So I finally took the first step and got a little Air Hog helicopter, and I flew it around my house for about a month. I would be editing and then in between, when my computer was rendering, I’d fire up that little helicopter and I’d fly it through the kitchen and down the hall, around corners, and just try and get my thumbs wired to my brain a little better.
After that I bought a Phantom, and went out into the world. At that point I was measuring my skill as a pilot as my ability to fly from A to B, or around obstacle X and back, safely.
It wasn’t until I went through Drone Pilot Ground School that I realized flying successfully and flying safely are not the same thing.
Just getting from A to B and not crashing is only about you and the aircraft. But safety is so much bigger than that. It encompasses the people around you, but also other aircraft. So many things can go wrong—if you’ve ever seen a drone lose its mind, you know it can suddenly become a flying lawnmower. And that is terrifying.
So over time I’ve learned that being a good a pilot isn’t just about flying well. It’s also about being aware of potential safety hazards, other people, and having a plan for what to do if something suddenly goes wrong.
There’s just so much unpredictability about being up in the air. Airspace is dynamic—it’s not a constant atmosphere, and it’s not a constant level of safety concern. Things are always changing, and they change quickly.
How did Conservation Media get started?
My background is in wildlife biology. Originally I was going to stick with hard, scientific research as it applied to wildlife conservation, but at some point I realized that most scientists are publishing in an academic vacuum, where their findings only reach other people in academia.
I really wanted to bridge that communication gap, and bring scientific research and conservation efforts to those stakeholders involved in shaping policy and making decisions that impact the environment. These people aren’t reading science journals, but they are watching videos and reading popular magazines.
And that’s where the idea for creating a company like Conservation Media was first born.
Photo courtesy of Conservation Media
How did you go from being a scientist to producing videos?
When I realized that I really wanted to bridge that communication gap, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Science and Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University, which was the only program of its kind at the time.
I spent four years going through grad school and in the process became a jack of all trades. The goal of the graduate program was to give people the technological skills in all the various departments of film production, so that you’d have the skills to be a gaffer, or just do lighting, or just do editing, or just do camera operations, or produce, or executive produce.
Most of the students that I went through that graduate program with went straight into National Geographic, and some went on to work with NASA at their visualization studio. But I just turned around and went back to my biology community, and my conservation community, and asked if I could do outreach for them.
So rather than doing broadcast commercial work, where you’d have to show the blood and the fangs and sensationalize your material, like Shark Week or something, I really wanted to produce straight story telling about nature and wildlife.
Check out this showreel from Conservation Media
Have you run into any legal hurdles using drones in your work?
Of course, there are a lot of off-limits places. You can’t fly in National Parks, and you can’t fly in wildlife refuges. And in some areas to get a filming permit you have to apply six months ahead of time and pay hundreds of dollars.
But I mainly fly in rural areas, in National Forests and remote public lands. Which means I’m lucky, because I really don’t run into a lot of problems with constraints on wanting to fly somewhere but not being able to.
What drones do you fly, and what cameras do you use?
Right now we’re flying the Inspire One with the X5 camera on it, which is a nice compromise between image quality and price.
We’ve also got a couple of Phantoms, which we use for riskier situations.
What has been one of your favorite projects and why?
One of the most incredible things I’ve ever done was to fly a drone over the opening to a wolf den to count the pups.
This was five years ago, way before the Part 107 rules came out, and the group I was working with—they were an official entity working to protect wolves in this area—was having trouble counting the pups, so they asked me to see if we could do it with a drone.
Something to emphasize here is that we took extreme care to make sure the animals weren’t harassed, and to respect their space and autonomy. Also, the counting was crucial for a conservation effort that was underway.
So we flew over the wolf den and the pups were lying right at the mouth of it. I remember it so clearly—I just dropped right down between the trees, went into the area, and there they were. There were five of them, just chewing on bones. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
In addition to media services, you also provide education through Conservation Media. Can you tell us more about that?
My main goal there is to try and teach people how to shape their stories. So, how to do better writing, how to do better audio, how to cut and edit their footage.
A lot of the folks just don’t have the budgets to engage in video production, so they end up doing the work themselves.
That’s why I ended up offering seminars on how to produce videos, as well as teaching and leading workshops, or sitting on panels. It varies. My mission is to help those scientists, or those nonprofits, who can’t afford to step up their game in communications by providing them with some simple techniques and tactics to make their work better.
My ultimate goal is to help spread information about conservation efforts and why their worth investing in. The education piece fits perfectly with this because it puts the tools into other people’s hands, and lets them go out and tell their own conservation stories themselves.
Want to see more videos from Conservation Media? Make sure to check out their Vimeo channel to see more of their impressive work.