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.
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.