While Kickstarter has become a beacon for inventors and startups looking to create the next big billion-dollar idea, it's also turned into an attractive source of funding for investigative journalism. In June, the site launched an official category for journalists — an announcement that caught my eye and my mouse, leading me to scan dozens of projects seeking backing. I stumbled upon journalist and author Will Potter and his innovative idea to send drones high above factory farms, circumnavigating so-called "ag-gag" laws and pulling the curtain back on environmental abuses.

Will Potter in 2013"It's not a secret that the agriculture industry is doing everything it can to keep consumers in the dark," Potter (at right) told me. "New 'ag-gag' laws make it illegal in multiple states to even photograph or videotape animal cruelty. As the rights of whistleblowers, undercover investigators and journalists are under attack, I think it's more important than ever to shine a spotlight on this industry."

What initially started as a $30,000 campaign goal to purchase a professional drone, photography equipment, and other resources quickly soared beyond $75,000, essentially doubling the number of investigative tools at his disposal. Potter — a journalist who investigates how the government deals with activists through his website, Green Is The New Red — says the public's reaction was unexpected.

"I thought my fundraising goal was achievable, but I never thought I'd reach it in just a few days, or that I'd triple the goal and meet that as well," he said. "I created this Kickstarter hoping to generate support from people already familiar with my book and website, but what I found was that it quickly spread to a very wide-ranging audience."

Potter admits that shooting from 500 to 1,000 feet above farms is not as effective at documenting animal abuses as on-the-ground investigations. By leveraging high-definition cameras, however, the level of detail offered by his aerial drones will surpass anything previously shared with the public.  

"Animal agriculture is one of the most environmentally-destructive industries on the planet," he says. "In a recent series, photographer Mishka Henner used satellite imagery to reveal factory farm pollution. With my drone investigation, I think we'll be able to see even more."

Factory farm waste pit as seen in a satellite view

An factory farm waste pit captured by a satellite. The black dots in the upper left are cows. (Photo: Mishka Henner)

"Ag-gag" laws limiting undercover video or photography in factory farms (or making illegal) have been proposed in more than two dozen states, but only seven have been successful. The laws are also nearly all under challenge by animal activists, who are filing lawsuits that argue the measures violate whistleblower and free speech protections. 

Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States or HSUS, said the tide is slowing changing. "Overall though, lawmakers are seeing through the smoke and mirrors and recognizing that these overreaches are designed to cover up animal cruelty and food safety concerns," he said. "The meat industry doesn’t want to prevent abuses, it wants to prevent Americans from finding out about abuses."

When asked if his organization has considered the use of drones, Shapiro said HSUS is more focused on capturing images of animal cruelty that occur inside factory farms. 

"Keep in mind that more than 95 percent of all farm animals in our country are confined indoors and likely won’t go outside until loaded onto a slaughter-bound truck," he said. "That’s why most of the investigations that ag-gag laws are intended to stop are conducted where farm animals are — inside — as opposed to from the air."

chickens packed into a cage

An example of cage crowding, as photographed by an undercover HSUS investigator at a farm in 2010. (Photo: HSUS)

For now, most "ag-gag" laws do not police drone activity, with Utah, North Carolina and Missouri being the notable exceptions. Potter says he'll fly his drone army only where he's legally permitted to do so, a window his own work may unintentionally help close. 

"If this investigation is successful, I have no doubt that the next round of 'ag-gag' laws will include restrictions on drone photography," he said. 

Nevertheless, the meat industry's reaction to his plan has reaffirmed his commitment to see it through. 

"Plenty of people have been threatening to shoot down my cameras, and one industry publication compared my drones to the 'death star' from 'Star Wars'," he said. "The fact that the industry is already so riled up about this — and I haven't even begun the investigation — is probably a good sign."

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