On a waterman’s boat less than 100 yards off the coast of Pioneer Point in Centreville, three University of Maryland journalists launched a drone toward the shuttered Russian compound on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The resulting aerial footage published by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Capital News Service this past fall gave the public an exclusive look at the mysterious Russian retreat, closed by the Obama administration in 2016 after determining that Russian government hackers meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
J.F. (John) Meils (M.J. ‘17), the CNS reporter who conceived of the idea, was inspired by a series of videos published by Russian activist Alexei Navalny, who used drone footage to show the sprawling, private properties used by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Meils couldn’t find any law prohibiting a similar flight over the diplomatic compound in Maryland. Still, he was stunned when the U.S. Department of State approved it.
“I kept thinking this wasn’t going to come together,” Meils said. “And then, it did.”
Meils sought help from lecturer Josh Davidsburg (‘01), who has a license to operate a drone professionally. Davidsburg brought master’s student Jamal Francis (M.J. ‘17) into the fold.
“I like flying, but I want to bring a student along,” said Davidsburg, whose license allows him to pilot a drone or closely supervise an unlicensed operator. “I’d rather Jamal fly it than me fly it.”
The trio took advantage of digital tools to prepare for their shoot, using aeronautical maps to check airspace and Google Earth to find a vantage point. Drone pilots must keep the remote-controlled aircraft within their line of sight — a problem given that tall trees and winding country roads encircled the Russian property.
Meils found the solution in a Centreville crab boat captain.
“John came up with the idea of getting a waterman to take us out on the boat,” Davidsburg said.
And so, on a bobbing vessel near the intersection of the Corsica and Chester Rivers, Davidsburg and Francis took turns flying drones over the sprawling complex. Within two hours, they had the footage they needed — despite 15 mile-per-hour winds that initially made keeping the drones steady a challenge.
Meils dug into the property records to learn more about the compound, and filmed interviews with local residents and government officials to round out the package. Francis handled the 15 hours of editing.
“It was us in contact every day,” Francis said. “He would send me ideas and feedback and we went tit-for-tat off of it and developed a project that way.”
They were a great team, Davidsburg said. The footage itself was interesting, but “it’s nothing without a story.”
“John’s reporting and Jamal’s editing turned it into something really good,” he said.
Meils set out to create a unique entry amid the many stories published following the Russian compound’s shuttering. Merrill College offered the support he needed to accomplish that.
“My takeaway from this program is you can do almost whatever you want from a news perspective,” Meils said, “and the school will support you.”