When his personal art project turned into a global phenomenon, Johnny Miller realised how drones can be used to empower communities.
When American photographer and videographer Johnny Miller debuted Unequal Scenes, a series of aerial drone photographs about social inequality, he had no idea how much of an impact the images would have. After the story was picked up by international news agencies, he launched africanDRONE, a non-profit company empowering African drone pilots and helps them tell their stories. He chats to Tech about his work and how drones create opportunities to disrupt society.
Why are you working in SA?
I won a scholarship to study anywhere in the world, and I heard there was a cool art scene in South Africa. Things went better than I could ever have expected – I’ve been here for about seven years now.
What is the goal of africanDRONE?
I founded africanDRONE about six months ago with financial assistance from Code for Africa, who support me as a fellow. The idea is to promote the safe and empowering use of drones throughout Africa, by African pilots. We achieve this via direct grants or drone camps where we teach people piloting and journalism skills.
The main focus is to become a network of drone operators who can all help each other – particularly across borders – and figure out how to fly in different regions, legally. This is all backed by donor money designated for social good, so we do a lot of story making with drones.
So you aren’t handing out drones?
No, we’re not in the business of going into communities, giving people drones and then leaving again. It’s more about finding people who already have the desire, equipment and skill-level to fly drones, and helping them to do it better, to network with other drone operators, and get the support and funds they need to carry out their own projects. It would be irresponsible of us to just hand out equipment willy-nilly that’s actually quite dangerous when used incorrectly.
Drones are expensive. How big is this across Africa?
It’s surprisingly common. In SA, I think the market is more or less saturated. However, it’s not about how many drones there are, but about how to use the tech to disrupt. It opens up the ability for Africans to overcome limits in infrastructure. Drones certainly could be the innovation that allows us to move things from A to B without having to build a road between these two places.
The stories that we support use drones as an add-on to traditional storytelling I always make the point that although drones are an exciting technology – and although it’s in our name – they are generally used to their best effect when they’re a supporting player. We are living in an age when words aren’t enough anymore, and new visuals such as drone photos and video allow people to add a fresh layer to their stories.
Whenever we do educational camps, it’s never just about piloting a drone. It’s about how to tell stories and use drones as a hook to get publicity, to do something unusual, and to tell a unique story from a completely different perspective.
Read Johnny’s full interview in your September issue of Tech.