Thoughts on Drones

In his article “The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation”, Chris Sandbrook notes that “it has been argued that the use of new technology can be empowering for local groups if it provides them with the means to collect their own data, enforce rules and challenge the claims of others who may wish to mislead them” (640). Sandbrook suggests, for interest, that a community could use drones to collect data for “forest monitoring [and] carbon measurements” in the face of private interests (640). In his suggestion that drone technology could foster more citizen-driven participatory data collection and analysis, I am reminded of the stated ideals my topic (open data). It was initially and still is claimed that open data can improve citizen involvement and decision-making when, indeed, barriers of skill, time, and knowledge have prevented open data from blossoming into a democratic tool. Unlike open data, drones also incur considerable cost for use, from both the cost of the technology and of obtaining permits, presenting further challenges to ‘popular’ use of drone technology as a tool of local empowerment.

In my opinion, GIScientists have an ethical obligation not only to incorporate concerns of impact on citizens in their own “ethnical protocols” (640), but also to critically consider the validity of ‘citizen participation’ arguments used to justify drone technology, open data, and other possibly invasive tools and developments used for GIScience. If, indeed, it is found that the preponderance of data collected and manipulated using drones or open data are benefitting defence interests, governments, and corporations (as I believe they are), then the academy of GIScientists and other academics using these tools should abandon this justification and condemn other academics that use it, at peril of the tools and their disciplines eventually being outed as snake oil salesmen.

After consideration of Sandbrook’s reading, I am drawn to the opinion that not enough mitigations of the social implications of their use are yet developed, and therefore that drones should be ‘grounded’ for academic or research use, even where potential benefits exist. Unlike certain forms of data collection that are either tailored for a specific purpose (e.g.: most academic research) or well know in their methods, availability, and usability (e.g.: census data), data collection derived from drone use violate the principle of informed consent and may produce unforeseen quandaries with unknown consequences.


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