Tag Archives: Drones

Drones for wildlife: the securitization of conservation?

By Helen Pallett

Drone_Flying_Eye

Image credit: Flying Eye (CC SA-BY)

We have come to know drones as one of the newest technologies of warfare and surveillance, a weapon central to how the war on terror is now being fought: remotely and increasingly through the use of computerised devices or robots. But another perhaps surprising use for drones has been developing in parallel, perhaps explaining why the World Wildlife Fund has been a major supporter of drone research since 2012.

On the same day last week the Guardian newspaper published two separate reports on drone usage. The first described how drones are going to be used in Kenya’s national parks in an effort to prevent poaching, whilst the second reported that in Germany drones will be used to protect young deer from being injured by combine harvesters.

These developments raise challenging questions about the development of new technologies. Do the intended purposes of a new technology matter when it is used for something different? Should we be interested in who the funders of technological research and innovation are? Can we assess and understand the uses of drones in wildlife conservation and, increasingly, research without understanding the use of drones as a technology of violence and surveillance? Is this the latest step in what some have referred to as ‘the securitzation of the environment’?

A recent themed section of The Geographical Journal, edited by Michael Mason and Mark Zeitoun, focuses on the issue of environmental security, both as a driver and consequence of increasing anxiety and apocalyptic accounts of the environment. In their introduction the editors argue that such fears about dangerous climate change or species extinctions work rhetorically to justify certain actions as urgent or emergency measures, from solar radiation management to crack downs on human behaviour and liberties.

Whilst few would doubt the seriousness of the threat from poaching to elephant and rhino populations in Kenya, by treating recent population depletion as an emergency scenario or a matter of security the Kenyan Wildlife Service and other conservationists may be serving to legitimate the use of a highly questionable conservation method. The use of drones for surveillance in Kenyan national parks represents a new method for policing ways of acting and being in a national park. The appropriate usage of national parks has long been a matter of controversy, not least because during the creation of many national parks, human populations had to be forcibly removed or regulated. Drones will potentially collect data not only concerning suspected poaching, but also other activities within the national park; all national park users can now be watched and surveilled. This may result in the management not only of poaching in the national parks, but also much more ambiguous activities such as attempts at settlement or the use of other resources.

Whilst it may be convenient to tell a simplistic story about ‘evil’ poachers and ‘good’ conservationists, such narratives can mask the more complex realities and the many negative implications the creation of national parks had for affected communities. Individual poachers may often be acting out of desperation, for example the lack of an alternative source of livelihood. Furthermore, poachers rarely act alone but rather are part of often transnational networks of capital, connecting them to infrastructures and markets for the sale of goods such as elephant and rhino horn.  So surveillance may be unlikely to act as a deterrent on its own.

The Kenyan drones project has been jointly funded by the US, Netherlands, France, Canada and Kenya, and also includes supplies of other military equipment such as firearms, bulletproof vests and night vision equipment. In the Kenyan national parks, drones are to be used in areas considered too risky for surveillance by manned aircraft, already a common practice. In the context of such efforts to radically reduce the risks faced by wildlife rangers in the field and the increasing panic about the loss of elephants and rhinos, how long will it be before it is acceptable to shoot suspected poachers on sight? Furthermore, once the infrastructures for drone use are in place it would be relatively straight-forward to substitute surveillance drones for armed drones, and this could be justified as a further means of protecting national park employees.

As we have seen with the military uses of drones, robots can make mistakes and claim innocent lives. Photos too can frequently be ambiguous and misleading, without other supporting evidence. Furthermore, these potential developments would further circumvent the justice procedures upheld by all the countries financially supporting the drones programme. In the context of albeit justified hysteria about the fast depletion of certain endangered populations, do we risk sanctioning an equally unpalatable solution? Claims of 96% reductions in poaching in some of the Kenyan drone pilots, alongside the circulation of horrifying images and statistics about the effects of poaching, also mean that other potential methods for conservation and poaching management may increasingly be ruled out and foreclosed.

books_icon Michael Mason & Mark Zeitoun 2013 Questioning environmental security, The Geography Journal, 179 (4): 294-297 (Open Access)

60-world2 Google cash buys drones to watch endangered species, BBC News, 6 December 2012

60-world2 Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in a bid to tackle poaching, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

60-world2 Germany deploys drones to protect young deer from combine harvesters, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

UAVs and the geographies of aerial spaces

By Matthew Rech

This week, the Guardian reported that the UK police force are planning to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for the routine monitoring of motorists, protestors, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers (Lewis). Documentation obtained through the freedom of information act suggests that a partnership between BAE Systems and a consortium of government agencies led by Kent Police hope to inaugurate their ‘national drone plan’ with surveillance operations during the London 2012 Olympics.

Routinely in the news, and infamous for their use in reconnaissance and air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military-style drones will be adapted for use in the UK, with current models being limited by air-space law. The financial cost of ‘revolutionising policing’ in this way, Lewis reports, will be offset by spreading the initial outlay across several government agencies, and by the aircraft ‘undertaking commercial work during spare time’.

Although it is possible for us to frame this story in a number of ways (surveillance, civil liberties and policing, post-human and military technologies), relatively new work in the geographies and geopolitics of aerial spaces might provide a cogent framework with which to assess the implications of airborne covert surveillance.

Writing in Area, Alison Williams ties together an ever-growing literature in aerial geographies/geopolitics, and emphasises the importance of thinking in 3D: of considering the vertical and volumetric aspects of the geographies of states. Although Williams’ article is concerned with the territorial integrity and contingent sovereignty issues in relation to military violations of airspace, an emphasis on the complexities associated with “strategies of security and securitisation increasingly enacted by powerful states” (57) through utilisation of sovereign airspace, remains pertinent to the discussion.

Here, and “as UAVs become the dominant modes of aerial attack” (57) (or in this case, surveillance), the lessons learned from considering the technological, political and moral implications of incursions into sovereign space might usefully be used to consider the future geographies of civilian domestic surveillance.

Read Paul Lewis’ article at Guardian online

Read Williams, A (2009) A crisis in aerial sovereignty? Considering the implications of recent military violations of national airspace. Area 42, 1. 51-59

Read more about the geographies and geopolitics of airspace at the Newcastle University Military Geography website