Drones are unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) whose technology has evolved rapidly over the past 15 years. Increasingly used in conservation to manage and monitor biodiversity, drones offer rich capabilities to observe in difficult terrain, have relatively affordable hardware costs and are likely to continue to proliferate rapidly in the years ahead. Drones are useful for tasks as diverse as monitoring wildlife poaching and illegal timber extraction, managing ecotourism and disaster responses, and tracking the regeneration or degradation of forests, and offer potential for more specialised tasks as their sensory payloads are developed. However, although associated technical issues and applications have been explored in wide-ranging ways within conservation science, there has been relatively little social-scientific engagement with drones to date. This leaves a gap surrounding the potential social benefits and risks of drones, as well as in interdisciplinary conversations. This introduction is the first of four papers under the heading ‘Drone ecologies’, building on an interdisciplinary workshop held under the same name at the University of Bristol in July 2021. Expanding from the plenary dialogues that opened this workshop, this introduction explores what interdisciplinary perspectives on drones can offer in addressing global social and ecological challenges, drawing on expertise from the fields of conservation biology, human and physical geography, rainforest ecology and environmental systems. Setting out the aims of the overall special collection, we review here the ways that drones are being used, and might be used, in biodiversity conservation, setting out important considerations to minimise risks of inadvertent harms.
Rapidly evolving drone technologies are taking the conservation sector by storm. Although the technical and applied conservation literature tends to frame drones as autonomous, neutral technologies, we argue that neither drones nor their implications can be adequately understood unless they are grounded, conceptually and methodologically, in the context of broader societal structures that shape how drones and the data they produce are used. This article introduces the value of a political ecology framework to an interdisciplinary audience of biophysical and social scientists interested in the multiple possibilities and complications associated with conservation drones. Political ecology provides the tools for studying and critically engaging with drone use in conversation in ways that are politically engaged and attuned to power relations – historic and present, local and global – in a more-than-human world. In making this argument, we point to four conceptual tools in political ecology that offer a framework for unveiling the power relations and structures that surround drones in different contexts: political economy, territoriality, knowledge and expertise, and more-than-human relations. Using empirics from our work across Latin America (Colombia and Guatemala), Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique), and North America (the US and Canada), we illustrate the salience of this framework and demonstrate why evaluating what drones do in and for conservation requires first understanding the complex set of power relations that shape their use.
In this policy intervention, we recount the process of producing a policy briefing targeting researchers and practitioners who use drones in biodiversity conservation. We use the writing process as a springboard to think through the ways that interdisciplinary exchange has and might further inform the ethical use of new technologies, such as drones. This approach is vital, we argue, because while drones may be deployed as tools that enable or empower forest, wildlife or habitat monitoring practices, so too can they be variously disruptive, repurposed and/or exceed these applications in significant ways. From questions of surveillance and capture, data ownership and security, to noise disruption, drone use requires careful and critical reflection, particularly in sensitive contexts. Yet, interdisciplinary exchange attentive to the ethical, social and experiential dimensions of drone use remains patchy and thin. To this end, this intervention reflects on the process of a group of scholars from ecological, environmental and social science backgrounds coming together in an interdisciplinary project grappling with diverse issues around responsible conservation drone use. After recounting our methodology, including the surprises and learning that emerged in practice, we contextualise the key themes we chose to foreground in our published policy briefing. We conclude by connecting our collaboration with wider actions and energies in the context of existing (conservation) drone policy and practice, while underscoring our contributions to existing work.
Following the 2008 global financial crisis, Digital Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) have become a common feature of the urban landscape in cities throughout Europe. An emerging body of literature suggests that Fab Labs go beyond providing access to digital fabrication tools, and function as ‘third places’ as they enhance social connectedness. Drawing on a case study of a Fab Lab in the English city of Coventry, this article utilises the concept of ‘austerity urbanism’ to understand the changing nature of third places in England since the 2008 global financial crash. In doing so, we argue that a confluence of austerity urbanism and digital advancements has influenced both the emergence of new third places (such as Fab Labs) while simultaneously undermining long-established third places (such as libraries). As a result, vital aspects of social infrastructure are being shaped and reshaped in the contemporary era. The article reflects on what these changes mean for individual and community well-being.
The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) awakened the world to the critical need for food systems transformation. Several commitments were made during the summit, with the UN Secretary-General reiterating the need to support national mechanisms that develop and implement national pathways to 2030 that are inclusive and consistent with countries’ climate commitments, building upon the national food systems dialogues. Much of the discussion in the post-summit era has mostly been high level and focused on how countries can be supported to transform pathways into strategies and to design and operationalise investment plans aimed at fostering sustainable and inclusive food systems transformation. However, what has been missing in these discussions is what the envisaged transformation means for the smallholder farmer, and what it takes for smallholder farmers to embrace the transformative agenda and transition to more sustainable methods of production. In this article, reference is made to two of the Five Action Tracks, namely Action Track 3 (boost nature-based solutions) and Action Track 5 (build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses), whose central themes are anchored around resilience and sustainability. The paper discusses the underpinnings of nature-positive production systems and explores how these systems interface with smallholder farmers’ circumstances and production goals, and how this might affect implementation of the envisaged practices at the farm level. The central argument in this article is that discussions around food systems transformation must include the smallholder farmers, their lived experiences, socio-economic circumstances, aspirations and production goals.