Drones: a risky distraction or exciting conservation opportunity?
Drones (or UAVs) have been hailed as a boon for community-based forest monitoring, as small, lightweight drones can fly beneath the clouds to provide extremely-high spatial resolution imagery of areas of interest to communities; moreover, drones can in principle repeat these surveys as often as needed at a low cost.
But there are also risks – in terms of ethics and privacy, reliance on external technical support, unclear legal frameworks, and the cost and difficulty of repairing drones.
A new page on Forest COMPASS runs through the pros and cons of using drones for community-based forest monitoring. In this blog, Jaime Paneque-Gálvez and MikeMcCall, both at the Autonomous University of Mexico tell us more about the opportunities and threats for forest communities; Jaime and Mike are two authors of this paper (a key source for our new page).
What are the biggest opportunities for drones in community-based monitoring?
Jaime: “To me, the biggest opportunity for drones in community0based monitoring lies in the fact that there is an increasing awareness and interest by indigenous peoples, partner organisations and governments to design and implement CBM programs assisted by, or centred on, the use of drones. This scenario is certainly going to gain traction as drone technology is rapidly getting cheaper and more user-friendly (including the necessary mapping software to mosaic and process drone imagery so that communities can extract meaningful information).”
Mike adds: “For community use, in particular for community use for environmental or territorial monitoring, UAVS have to be seen as an additional complementary tool to `traditional` monitoring by humans on foot, who are often already using GPS, digital photography/video, smartphones apps, etc. The UAV is not the silver bullet in this, it is just a convenient addition to the toolbox with particular advantages and disadvantages.”
What needs to happen for the technology to reach these places that most need it?
Jaime: “Drone technology needs to get much simpler and cheaper so that it can reach those isolated, threatened communities that could possibly benefit from its utilisation (e.g. those that are being engulfed by the advancement of commodity frontiers in the Amazon and other tropical forests around the world).”
Which risks concern you most, and how can they best be avoided?
Jaime “Technology can always be misused and, in the case of small drones introduced in a community for CBM, I´d say the greatest risks may be associated with espionage (whether intended or not), the rise of conflicts within the community (e.g., due to espionage accusations, between elders and young members –the latter are likely to be in charge of drone usage and get empowered as a result, which in turn might challenge elders´ authority, etc.) or between communities (e.g., if some have access to drones and some do not).
“Also, in my experience the deployment of a drone in a situation of environmental conflict is frequently risky as illegal actors feel intimidated with the presence of a drone which is recording or taking photos that may be used against them. Therefore, in such situations, the utilisation of a drone can be dangerous.
“In addition, I am concerned about the utilisation of drones for CBM to serve the interests of governments, academia or NGOs, without catering as well to the own monitoring interests of communities. Therefore, carefully-designed drone-based/assisted CBM strategies are necessary and ethics must play a fundamental role. Real free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) must be obtained from communities wishing to embark on a CBM program in which drones are to be used as well as real, broad community participation at all stages (from project design to implementation and evaluation).”
How do you see things panning out in terms of regulations?
Mike: “A serious threat to the use of UAVs by communities or local groups is the emerging concerns and suspicions of UAVs by the public in general, which are already and will be more so, reflected in legislation severely limiting UAV operations. Most countries, in Africa, as well as Europe, Asia, are currently engaged in assessing novel legislation which will likely become increasingly restrictive. It is unlikely at present that the use and management of UAVs by communities will be seen in a different more generous light, than operations by commercial or hobbyist users. As soon as there is a major accident caused by UAVs, there are going to be heavy restrictions— I would guess that these restrictions will be more onerous on local communities to meet the requirements.
“So one thing for proponents of UAVs for monitoring should do, is to ally with other sonically conscious applications and users, such as those working in post-disaster, who are already working on ‘Guidelines for Responsible UAV Behaviour’. A broader coalition of ‘social’ users would help in influencing new legislation. “
What might the future hold for drones and forest communities?
Jaime: “I see great opportunities for funding and leveraging drone use in CBM, particularly in the case of communities who wish to participate in Payment for Environmental Services programs such as REDD+, but also in the case of communities who aim to better map and monitor their territories as a way to defend themselves from external pressures (e.g., illegal loggers, miners, ranchers…).”
Mike: “An obvious thought about the future of UAVs is ‘serendipity’ - the uses and applications and positive impacts and dangers of UAVs will turn out to be different from what we expect. The only response to that is that all the planning and budgeting and policy setting should be as flexible as possible to be ready for the unexpected futures.”
In sum, here at Forest COMPASS we hope that participatory forest monitoring initiatives will look into options for drones, to work out whether or not these could provide a useful complement to participatory mapping and ground surveys. You can get more deatils on the drones page and ideas from inspirational videos, produced by Conservation Drones and Digital Democracy.