Drones have a bad rep. Most people have sinister associations with stealthy, high-tech weaponry, but unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are poised to become a part of regular life. Amazon is actively working on a same-day drone delivery program, and commercial drone use will be a legal reality by September 2015, reports Politico. And thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, reporter and author Will Potter will shortly be deploying UAVs in the service of investigative journalism.

News and media outlets are already using drones to cover protests, natural disasters, sports, wildlife—and even to hound celebrities. However Potter’s plan is more targeted: He wants to take aerial photographs of factory farms to try and investigate their environmental impact. But it’s not going to be easy.


A satellite image of factory farm pollution by Mishka Henner. [Photo via Kickstarter]

In the past, footage of inhumane and unsanitary factory farm conditions have led to public outcry and regulatory investigations; in 2008, the largest meat recall in U.S. history occurred as a direct result of secretly recorded video footage released by the Humane Society. Agribusiness has countered by pressing for legislation that criminalizes undercover reporting and whistleblowing.

According to Salon, various “ag gag” laws are already in effect in nine states. Idaho joined the censorship ranks in February by banning video and audio recordings of farms and production facilities. In response, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has challenged the law for violating the First Amendment, reports Al Jazeera.


An injured piglet at an Iowa factory farm. [Photo via Kickstarter]

While these legal battles play themselves out in the courtrooms, Potter has the tricky job of trying to chronicle factory farming without breaking any laws. He plans to create a short documentary and publish an e-book about agricultural practices and ag gag legislation, but admits in an interview with Salon that he’s concerned about the backlash that’s sure to be coming his way. He says,

“I just logged in this morning to my email and saw a write-up on one of the meat industry websites about the Kickstarter, comparing drones to the Death Star, and saying that farmers shouldn’t be the subject of ‘drone strikes.’ Which just makes your jaw drop, because we’re not talking drone strikes. We’re talking photographs of pollution.”


Will Potter delivering a TED Talk on the criminalization of non-violent protest. [Photo via Twitter]

His project is further complicated by laws restricting drone use. In 2012, a Texas man took aerial photographs of blood flowing into a river; the illegal dumping was traced to a local meat packing plant which was subsequently investigated. The Lone Star state has since passed a law restricting private citizens from taking aerial photographs with unmanned aircraft.

That’s why robust legal counsel is part of Potter’s game plan, as listed on his Kickstarter campaign page. And it seems that the project has plenty of popular support: It was fully funded in just 5 days and was the top campaign in Kickstarter’s journalism category. Potter has added a new stretch goal and there are still two weeks to contribute. So if you’re concerned about environmental issues and civil liberties, this is your time to act.

[via Salon]