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Why drones often aren’t the solution to developing-world problems

A critical theorist tells us how studying drones lets her better understand how technology and society shape one another.

February 27, 2019
Photo of Katherine Chandler
Photo of Katherine ChandlerKate Warren

New technologies are never introduced into a vacuum. They emerge into a social, economic, and political setting and influence it in their turn. Katherine Chandler, a professor in the culture and politics program at Georgetown University, is researching drones in Africa as a study of how technology and society change together. We recently spoke with Chandler about her project.

How are drones used in Africa today?

There are a number of small-scale drone projects throughout the continent, ranging from counting wildlife to delivering vaccines to mapping islands to using drones as disaster-response technologies. One of the projects that I’m interested in is an initiative by the State University of Zanzibar. The team uses small commercial drones that can only fly for 30 or 40 minutes. So mapping Zanzibar has taken over two years.

The intention was for students to make a map that could be used for planning and natural resource management, so you would have a baseline idea of what the islands looked like if there were a hurricane, oil spill, or some other disaster. The project was not originally about resolving long-standing land claims. But part of the challenge of mapping in Zanzibar and making the information public has been figuring out how the map impacts disputes over land.

How can data gathered by drones resolve land disputes?

It’s unclear how it would, or if it will. There are clearly political concerns about what this map will mean and how it’s going to be used. There is a lot of information that becomes available through this high-resolution map. You can see trash dumping sites; you can see wastewater runoff; you can see where illegal building is happening. And that information changes the terms of debate.

The African Union and various international aid agencies have described drones as “transformative” for African development in general. Are they?

It’s useful to think about how small an island Zanzibar is, and how long it took to carry out this particular project. When you’re working in much larger spaces it becomes harder to actually cover the territory.

Take another example. Between 2016 and 2017 there was an experiment to try to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into anti-poaching efforts at Kruger National Park in South Africa. The manager in charge said that they weren’t able to see any poachers by using drones and that, despite the hype around drones as an innovative new technology, drones were not capable of doing the work that was necessary to track and follow poachers, and so the project was canceled. Drones couldn’t cover enough ground to gather useful information, nor were park authorities able to put the information drones gathered to good use.

There were experiments in another, much smaller, park that suggested that drones might be slightly more useful. I point this out because one of the things that I’m trying to argue is this question of scale is important when thinking about what drones can accomplish.

Fuel and battery life are a problem. Most drones right now are able to fly for no more than an hour at most. The other big limitation is payload. The amount of weight that a drone can carry is limited. This means deliveries have focused on things like blood and vaccines.

Is drone delivery a way to “leapfrog” past the need to build a better road network in much of rural Africa, where muddy roads are often impassable during rainy season?

One project that gets a lot of publicity is a venture in Rwanda by a company called Zipline to deliver blood by drone. Rwanda has been a site for huge investments by all kinds of international development organizations, and the Rwandan government is broadly interested in using drone aircraft for lots of different research projects. This has led to a vision of the country as a kind of technology hub.

But Rwanda continues to be a hugely agrarian society. How do drones fit with the day-to-day realities of most of the people living there? It is a challenge to understand who these technological investments are working for. Drones are imagined as a replacement for other forms of infrastructure, but maybe those other forms of infrastructure are actually really necessary.

It illustrates the fallacy of talking about drones as a leapfrogging technology. Thinking about how we are going to organize technologies in ways that are effectively going to serve people and communities—that’s the sort of visioning that I want to see people doing.

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