Going vertical
: Exploring the technical opportunities and socio-political dynamics of drones in forest conservation

  • Ben R Newport

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

Drones are an increasingly common tool in forest conservation, praised for their affordability, ease-of-use, and potential for community-based applications. One use warranting further exploration is their integration into community-scale carbon monitoring. Yet the introduction of drones into conservation spaces requires an interdisciplinary examination, as the use of drones can negatively impact forest communities and exacerbate already-uneven power dynamics. In addition, although drones are considered an accessible technology within technical literature, little is known on how this accessibility is experienced by different drone practitioners. Drawing upon literatures from ecology, political ecology, and science and technology studies, this thesis examines the implications of using drones in forest conservation, using the island of Borneo as a study site. First, I demonstrate a methodology for measuring aboveground carbon density using consumer-grade drones that could be adopted by community groups. This methodology produces results quicker and more cost-effectively than comparable field-based methods, whilst underlining the importance of data-processing capacities for potential users. Second, I use interviews with drone practitioners across Borneo to investigate the impacts of ‘going vertical’ on forest conservation. I show that whilst drones open what geographers call the vertical dimensions of space for new practices of data collection, regulation, and control, their implementation is still shaped by socio-political dynamics and biophysical materialities on the ground. Finally, I explore the mismatch between the accessibility of drones in theory and in practice in Borneo. I assert the importance of considering drones as part of data production systems, the subjectivity of accessibility, and how an overfocus on technical applications risks obscuring other valuable applications of drones for conservation purposes. I encourage drone practitioners and data users to take an interdisciplinary approach to drones, thereby acknowledging the limitations – as well as affordances – of drones in practice and avoiding the pitfalls of common narratives surrounding their use.
Date of Award23 Jan 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorNaomi Millner (Supervisor), Tristram Hales (Supervisor) & Joanna Isobel House (Supervisor)

Keywords

  • Drone
  • Conservation
  • Political Ecology
  • Carbon
  • Science and Technology Studies
  • Surveillance
  • Photogrammetry
  • Verticality
  • Governance
  • Mapping
  • Accessibility

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