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Get a bird’s eye view: drones and satellites for improved sectoral governance

Michael Jarvis's picture
Building drones for rainforest monitoring in Puerto Luz, Amarakaeri Communal territory, Peru. Photo: Augusto Escribens, Hivos

Walk into your local Apple Store, and you can leave with a Parrot. A Parrot drone that is. The range of drones on the market is proliferating, so you can pick up a number of species: prefer fixed-wing or copter?
 
Media coverage conjures up daily images of drone use in warfare or spying: more predator than parrot. But could drones have a growing positive role for development if applied creatively and responsibly?
 
The real value of drone images for development will likely come in how they are applied in specific sectoral and institutional contexts. We highlight examples of how drones, operated by communities directly or by government authorities, are used to promote accountability and performance in a variety of applications. Can drones become a standard tool for good governance?
 
Companion blogs will feature drone use for transparency and accountability in local roads investment and natural disaster relief in the Philippines. This blog focuses on the use of drones for monitoring in the extractives sector as featured in the Air and Space Series organized by the Governance and Energy-Extractives Global Practices.

Jungle vision
In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, it is hard to get a variety of perspectives, particularly for remote communities. Drones can give that bigger picture and indigenous communities are trying to take advantage. Photos taken by drones monitor incursions of oil, mining and palm oil activities within their territories. 
 
As this video shows, communities assemble and pilot the drones themselves, and compare the imagery received with satellite images and concession boundary data. The time and GIS-stamped drone images allow them to pinpoint spills, unsanctioned land uses and deforestation and share that information with relevant authorities.  
 
Participatory video mapping, as supported by groups such as Hivos and Digital Democracy through the innovative HacktheRainforest project, helps communities communicate their vision of their territory to the outside world and push to protect their rights.
 
Space vision
Drones are not the only source of visual evidence; local impacts can be tracked from space, too. Satellites are able to track movements invisible to the naked eye, sparking a host of applications, some of which were recently discussed.  The UK-supported non-profit Satellite Applications Catapult are creating demonstration cases for monitoring from space, including those that reinforce good governance.
 
In one example, they linked up with Pew Charitable Trusts in using satellite data to clamp down on illegal fishing in their Project Eyes on the Seas. In another, the mining regulator in Chile is exploring how to use satellite images for environmental monitoring – for example, an algorithm can be created to track tailings dams at mine sites. If periodic satellite sweeps detect a movement, even of millimeters, the program can trigger an email to an official and lead to a team being sent out to check the integrity of the dam. Such techniques should reinforce efficient, reliable oversight and prevention of environmental problems that would be far more costly.
 
Drones versus satellite
Satellites are anonymous, while drones are visibly more intrusive. With satellite imagery rapidly increasing in resolution and dropping in cost, why bother with drones? Drones have a number of advantages. First, their image resolution is higher for a lower cost. Military drones are now achieving resolutions for under 10 centimeters. Parrot Drones are not far behind. Second, Parrots fly below cloud cover. Finally, Parrot drones can be a powerful and immediate tool for local engagement. If communities use drones in their airspace, they can build ownership of the findings.
 
A gadget reality check?
Of course, it is easy to get fixated on technological capabilities. While drones are getting much cheaper, they are still a significant investment. They need to be adapted to different users. Available drone software had to be customized to the needs of Amazon communities. Relying on cloud storage is not feasible in many remote contexts. Plus, drones can only provide data – in themselves, they offer no guarantee that the information will be acted upon. However, as uptake increases, others can adapt approaches and platforms already developed. Combining drone and satellite data offers intriguing opportunities.
 
The recent World Development Report on Digital Dividends limits references to uses of drone technology to mapping impacts of natural disasters and for automated delivery of medicines, for example.
 
For digital technology to make a difference, analog complements need to be in place. But applications to reinforce good governance could be wide-ranging. Both Satellite Catapult and Hivos report that there is a surprising acceptance from government, industry and civil society of drone and satellite supplied data – it is perceived as trusted information. As such, ready access to such data could be basis for collectively recognizing problems and assuring accountability for redress.
 
Are you already using drones or satellite imagery in your projects?  Please share your ideas and examples to build up our understanding of how such tools can strengthen governance on the ground.

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