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Published onJul 30, 2020

Buzzing high above the moonlit landscape, a six-rotor UAV hovers near a roadway on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.1 With sophisticated imaging hardware, the device captures the heat signature of an endangered black rhino and beams coordinates back to a command post. An infrared night-vision scan of the surrounding area reveals a vehicle, out of which jump three men who begin scaling the perimeter fence of the park: poachers. Waiting for word from the command post, park rangers are deployed near the location of the rhino, ready to intercept the threat. The word is given, and the rangers move in, arresting the poachers and preventing another rhino from being killed for its horn. As drone use spreads worldwide, efforts like this are on the rise. How are drones being used, and how should we categorize such use?

Across a number of recent real-world cases, this chapter provides empirical support for the concepts introduced in earlier chapters. I began the book with the claim that civil society uses technologies before and beyond social media, and that such technologies include the things people and groups put to use. Do this often enough and a repertoire emerges, virtually always in reference to dominant social, economic, and political resources and norms. These things are put to use when people think things can be put to use. This use can be new (i.e., emergent) and it may challenge the status quo (i.e., disruptive), or it may be both, or neither.

In the second chapter I introduced new tools for seeing from the air (“geospatial affordances”) as a particular set of technologies—both old and young—that are independent of social media. I also implied that these technologies represent an emerging repertoire amongst civil society actors. The implications, I suggested, are profound insofar as spatial technologies create new puzzles and opportunities around civil society, pushing us to take the concept of the public sphere more seriously and more multidimensionally, if you will.

This third chapter is entirely empirical, and allows us to bring the theoretical argument made in the first chapter together with the conceptual argument advanced in the second. In particular, I present evidence that geospatial affordances are tools that change-oriented social actors put to emergent and disruptive use. In the first chapter, I introduced the concepts of emergent and disruptive technologies. There I was unpacking the phrase disruptive new digital technology. By now it should be sufficiently clear that by technology I simply mean things in use—whether old or new, digital or analog, so long as they help people, groups, or institutions to get things done, preferably for the public good.

The term disruptive simply means a technology for which there is little approval for either means or ends. A non-disruptive technology is one that enjoys broad and unproblematic support. One can imagine that the technological repertoire of most nonprofits is decidedly non-disruptive, since nongovernmental organizations (or congressional representatives and churches, for that matter) frequently rely on a range of donors who are themselves imbricated within broad social, cultural, and political norms. The term emergent simply refers to whether a particular task can be accomplished with current tools and technology. Of course, when it comes to geospatial affordances, drones like the Predator are not necessarily an emergent technology for well-equipped countries like the United States. The Predator does a few of the things that an F-16 aircraft is capable of, but at a drastically lower price and without risk to a pilot’s life. A price advantage does not make a technology disruptive if the actor’s funds are nearly unlimited. But for the kind of non-state actors covered in this study, aircraft of any sort tend to be exorbitant, and if they are engaged in politically sensitive activities, or making claims against commercial or state elites, then it is unlikely permission to fly would be granted, even if an aircraft could be procured.

Here we note an interplay between dominant norms and emergent use. In a weak conception of emergent use, I have included politics (and thereby social norms) in my assessment of what is possible. Whether something “can be done” with a helicopter by a civil society group, for example, is directly connected to the actor’s budget and official approval to fly in public airspace. In many cases, the phrase cannot be done by other tools of the day might more accurately be rendered: cannot be done by tools of the day because of resistance from both the government (which issues permits to planes and helicopters) and society (which supports organizations with approval and finances). The relationships between these factors can be seen in the table 3.1 and is discussed in the case studies that follow.

Table 3.1   Cases in Book Categorized by Emergence and Disruption



Follows norms (non-disruptive)

Can be done with current tools (non-emergent)

Could be done with other tools of the day
Stakeholders approve (or ambivalent)
Anti-poaching (chapter 3)
Intimate partner violence campaign (chapter 6)

Cannot be done with current tools (emergent)

Could not be done with other tools of the day
Stakeholders approve (or ambivalent)
Environmental advocacy (chapter 3)
Photojournalism (chapter 6)
Anti-slavery lantern shows (chapter 6)
Animal rights (chapter 6)

Challenges norms (disruptive)

Could be done with other tools of the day
Stakeholders disapprove (or targeted)
Crowd estimation (chapter 3)
Anti-slavery petition (chapter 6)

Could not be done with other tools of the day
Stakeholders disapprove (or targeted)
Documenting war crimes (chapter 3)
Slavery in India (chapter 3)
Photojournalism (chapter 6)
Forced labor in North Korea (chapter 3)
Monitoring police (chapter 5)
Drone graffiti (chapter 5)

A number of these cases—anti-poaching (non-emergent and non-disruptive); environmental advocacy (emergent and non-disruptive); crowd estimation (non-emergent and disruptive); chronicling war crimes (emergent and disruptive); and documenting bonded labor in India (emergent and disruptive)—are presented in this chapter. Some cases were presented in earlier chapters, and others will be introduced throughout the rest of the volume. In every case, I have done my best to focus the empirical evidence on these two key factors—emergence and disruption. The utility of this approach is tested through the inclusion of examples that rely on technologies other than those covered in this volume: in the final chapter, I explore the implications for a materialist approach to advocacy technology with the case of an intimate partner violence campaign in contemporary South Africa and the use of lantern shows and anti-slavery petitions during the abolitionist movement in England. Many of the cases categorized in table 3.1 are incorporated into chapters 4–6. This chapter focuses exclusively on five case studies that illuminate the utility of the emergent/disruption framework for understanding technological adoption.


Thomas Snitch and his team from the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies have been using a UAV to understand the patterns of poaching that take place in Kruger National Park. The team’s data analysis provides a model that directs rangers, using satellite data, to the site where a potential target animal will be at a given time. The UAV provides aerial observation and alerts the rangers when an attempt to kill the animal might take place. Using this complex network of data, technology, and human intervention, Snitch and his team were able to stop poaching entirely within a week of the UAV’s introduction.

Although these technologies thwart poachers, legislative challenges threaten their use. Kenya, a poaching hotspot, instituted a broad ban on drones, effectively halting anti-poaching projects. These regulatory measures were far-reaching and have impacted well-intentioned efforts aimed at what seems to be a positive outcome. With a lucrative black market, however, the disruption of these criminal networks can have a consequential influence on corrupt politicians and policy makers, particularly in less-developed countries where economic opportunity often comes from elected positions. While drones may serve as technical tools for problem solvers in civil society, they cannot solve underlying social, political, and economic issues that make advocacy interventions necessary in the first place. Perhaps, then, the use of UAVs in such contexts is more disruptive in countries where networks of corruption facilitate poaching.

Projects like the one in Kruger are becoming more common as drone prices fall. Protecting endangered species with the use of UAVs has created a number of innovative ventures, from the sophisticated tracking team in South Africa to a hacked drone that releases pepper spray to deter elephants from entering an area where they may be in danger. Orca pods are being monitored by a UAV in order to observe the health of their members and to determine whether new offspring are present. An advocacy group called Sea Shepherd is using drones to combat Japanese whaling missions and illegal seal hunting.

Larger organizations are getting involved as well. The World Wildlife Fund has been awarded a $5 million grant from Google for innovative UAV-based approaches to conservation issues, particularly poaching. The project uses a UAV that can fly for an hour and cover a distance of 18 miles at an altitude of 650 feet, thereby expanding the battle against poaching in Africa and Asia by providing information regarding animal locations, danger zones, and ranger deployment. Working together, these efforts have had a significant impact on the ability of poachers to function while also leading to an increase in arrests of potential poachers. In some cases, the areas where UAVs and satellites are used in conjunction have completely eliminated poaching attempts.2

None of this is to say the deployment of drones is unproblematic. Recent work by the University of Minnesota focused on how an animal reacts to the presence of a UAV. Researchers strapped heart-monitoring devices onto bears, hoping to monitor any change in heart rate when a UAV was present. Additionally, they used a GPS tracker to see if behavior would be altered by the presence of a UAV. The researchers noticed a significant change in their heart rate during each of their flights, but they did not notice any changes to the bears’ behavior. Clearly, there is much more to learn as UAVs join other methodological tools in the conservationist’s toolkit.

A casual look at our dataset suggests most nongovernmental and noncommercial uses are neither emergent nor disruptive. In other words, other tools are available for the job (so it is not emergent) and the deployment of drones for the task does not challenge existing cultural or political norms (so neither is it disruptive of the status quo). In the pages that follow, I highlight those cases that represent a scale shift in how individuals and institutions are able to see and act in the world.


Drawing attention to the worthiness of claims-making efforts is not new. The first use of a drone to document a protest event appears to have occurred in 2011 at a pro-democracy event organized against Russian president Vladimir Putin. Tens of thousands of people gathered at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in response to the results of that year’s parliamentary elections, widely seen as yet another round in Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power.3 Ridus News Agency, a Russian citizen journalism group, flew a six-rotor drone mounted with a Canon DSLR camera over the protests, documenting the expanse of the crowds while hovering over a nearby river.4

Drones have been a consistent presence ever since. Civil society actors have used them to push back against anti-democratic regimes in places where democracy is under threat, including Hong Kong, Hungary, Turkey, Thailand, China, and Russia. In Ukraine, for example, a quadcopter was used to film anti-government protests in the city’s capital, Kiev, after President Viktor Yanukovych announced a shift away from the European Union. The video was later shared online.5 When an activist used a micro-drone to document political protests in Istanbul in the summer of 2013, the police responded by shooting the device down. However, this was not before the operator was able to capture footage of police-on-protester violence, including the use of water cannons, plastic bullets, and tear gas.6

The same year, a Thai drone pilot shot footage of protests in Bangkok,7 in which supporters of the opposition party called for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation.8 The footage of the violent clashes between protestors and authorities—full of angry shouts, water cannons, barricades, and tear gas—directed significant international attention to the protestors’ claims. In response, the subsequent junta government banned personal drones equipped with cameras.9 It is clear why authorities ground drones: they provide footage that is simultaneously a source of inspiration (thus amplifying the movement’s effect) and information (providing acute estimates of crowd size, thus further challenging the target’s legitimacy). This demonstration effect, if you will, is important for protests in democracies and non-democracies alike. As such, it links to arguments advanced by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan regarding the relationship between protest size and movement success—larger nonviolent protests are more likely to be successful than smaller and violent protests.10 Drones are not the only tool for this, but repressive regimes are loath to release to the general public any inspirational and informative photographs of large anti-regime protests.

Together with colleagues at Central European University, and now colleagues at the University of San Diego and University of Nottingham, I have worked to improve on existing estimation approaches for analyzing images of large crowds (figure 3.1).11 This puzzle has plagued movement scholarship for some time, as efforts to draw estimates from the air are expensive and involve cooperation with the authorities—two things that are nearly impossible to secure for the average social movement intent on disrupting the status quo.

Figure 3.1 Using drone-based digital imagery to better estimate the size of large crowds (author image).

Protests and other large-scale collective-action efforts are often intended to challenge and transform particular patterns of thinking or behavior. Efforts to document these events are similarly disruptive, especially when security personnel are involved. Police are often aware of the risk posed by footage that contradicts dominant narratives about the nature of the protest event, participant behavior, and police response. This is as true for drone footage as it is for street journalism. While documenting protests by drone may be disruptive to established interests, it is debatable whether it is emergent. Non-identical, but similar, images can be captured from the top of nearby buildings. Identical images can be made by helicopters granted permission to fly over an event. Here we are reminded of a critical tension—emergent for whom? Drones are an emergent technology when benchmarked to civil society groups, which tend to not have helicopters or access to helicopters, but this same technology is non-emergent to states, which own and control helicopters of their own.

The use of drones to document large-scale political gatherings is disruptive. This is true whether or not their use is emergent. In settled democracies, social change efforts succeed or fail based on their ability to sway elites with policy-changing power, either through direct threats and appeals, or by proxy struggles in the court of public opinion. Over the past 60 years, Charles Tilly has argued, these efforts have increasingly taken the form of large gatherings and protests intended to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.

While capturing the public imagination and changing individual minds is a tall order, an important first step involves demonstrating that a new perspective is held not by a lunatic fringe but by a sizable number of fellow citizens. Numbers matter. Small events are dismissed as fringe, and their issue further marginalized. Visually arresting images of large crowds and unambiguous estimates of crowd size are important for claimants, as anyone familiar with the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration can readily attest.

Moving images and firm estimates are hard to secure from the ground, but both can be easily captured from above. Social movement actors are rarely in possession of the resources necessary to deploy helicopters, so they have traditionally made do with rough estimates and broad claims. Drones, however, provide an accessible and affordable tool for activists (as well as journalists and the police) to document the event and better substantiate their claims. Of course, the technology might just as easily demonstrate that the event was poorly attended or that some participants broke the rules of engagement. The technology may also be used to increase transparency and accountability, especially in areas where governments, corporations, or other powerful private actors are intent on keeping secrets from citizens and consumers. There is a place for muckraking journalism, to be sure, and the most pro-public acts of journalism in the past century have fallen on the right side of justice but the wrong side of the law.12

Of course, advocacy groups and independent journalists are not the only actors at work during protest events. In India, where nongovernmental drone use is banned, the police have made extensive use of the devices for monitoring large political events. When conflict broke out between Muslim and Sikh communities in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, after a land dispute turned violent, local police used drones to monitor the situation. The UAVs were particularly useful in areas police could not access by car or foot.13 In Lucknow, also in Uttar Pradesh, the city police have used drones for several years to monitor a major religious festival that has lately led to sectarian clashes. In 2015, the police purchased four new drones, now equipped with the ability to release pepper spray against mobs or violent protest.14 A non-lethal “riotcopter” can be purchased from a South African weapons manufacturer, complete with tear gas, paintball rounds, and a remote speaker system. It is unclear whether these trends will make their way to other countries. Over the past half-decade, an unspecified number of police departments across the United States have begun obtaining UAVs. Only time will tell whether changes in political regime and popular opinion will encourage their deployment.

Finally, drones document protests, but they can also be used as a vehicle for protest activities. In an awareness-raising publicity stunt, Dutch activist group Women on Waves used a lightly modified consumer drone to transport abortion-inducing pills across the German-Polish border. The group wanted to raise awareness about restrictive anti-abortion laws in Poland—which offers abortions only in cases of rape or incest, risk to the mother’s life, or severe fetus malformation—and to draw attention to discrepancies in abortion access by country and wealth.15 The delivery went to two Polish women who used the pills. In a similar effort, Japanese activist Yasuo Yamamoto landed a drone on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office in a protest against the use of nuclear power. The drone carried a camera and a small plastic bottle filled with radioactive sand from the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.16 No one was harmed, but the incident prompted fears of future attacks being carried out remotely.17 Such use is non-emergent—the pills could have been smuggled by land and the sand-filled bottle could have perhaps been delivered by trebuchet—but all of the cases in this section are disruptive of the status quo.


In the course of writing this book, some of the world’s attention focused on the plight of citizens trapped in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.18 President Bashar al-Assad faced protests in 2011, but held fast against the kind of anti-regime protests that brought down the leadership of several of Syria’s neighbors. By mid-2012 the struggle between the regime and protestors had turned into a civil war.

Over the course of the conflict, Aleppo became more than a city. The brutality of the siege against its civilians reduced the city to rubble and generated countless refugees, leading observers to list it alongside other humanitarian tragedies: “Berlin, 1945; Grozny, 2000; Aleppo, 2016” in the words of the New York Times.19 Times journalist Michael Kimmelman’s observations were made in response to footage made by a drone as it wove silently through narrow streets, climbed carefully past floor after floor of rubbled homelife, and pulled back for a panoramic shot of the absolute desolation of total war. Such footage represents a significant challenge to the government, especially in light of the military’s use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Documentary evidence—whether from the air or ground—of war crimes will be vital to any future case against the Assad regime.

In the case of Aleppo, the struggle to frame the conflict for the international community ran parallel to the battle for control over the land itself. In work AlHakam Shaar and I did reporting on reporters, we found that while drone footage from Russia Today showed videos of rebel-held and heavily bombed Eastern Aleppo, the regime’s Ministry of Tourism promoted footage of the city’s intact Western half, complete with the soundtrack from HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones.20

The contrast was stark. Life with the regime was normal. Life with the rebels was hell.

Citizen journalist Monther Etaky remembered that “the regime was always looking down from the drone” and that their footage was used to break the will of the resistance. An Aleppo native working as a journalist during the siege, Etaky and his colleague Abdalrahman Ismail were frustrated by this distortion and desperate to tell a story of resilient defiance. They were not alone. They joined a handful of independent journalists in order to tell the other side of the story. The next step was as simple as it was familiar to activists the world over: they scoured the marketplace of techniques and technologies for the right tool for the job, and then they bought their own drone. Suddenly, the journalists were working along two frontlines simultaneously: one physical and the other symbolic. “The regime was always looking down from the drone. When I first flew the drone for myself, I saw the destruction of the city. I’m used to seeing the destruction from the ground, but not from the sky … it looks wider than from the ground,” Monther remembers. At the time, both men were contributing to Life in Aleppo, a grassroots effort to raise awareness of the siege. “The regime is the greatest criminal on the planet,” Monther told me. With Assad’s planes occupying the skies for the past five years, Aleppo earned titles such as “the world’s most dangerous city” and Syria’s “barrel-bomb capital.”

The group’s footage undermined official narratives of the war’s progress while challenging humanitarian consciousness worldwide. This is true in struggles well beyond Syria, as new technologies give regimes new means of control at the same time that challengers gain new tools for documenting abuses and spreading the word about important causes. Drones are no exception: the most-viewed drone footage of Aleppo is not from Monther, Abdalrahman, or their colleagues. What folks watch the most is YouTube footage from Russian outlets like Russia Today and Ruptly. Some titles are generic: “Drone Footage Captures Devastation of East Aleppo”; others are clearly political: “Drone Footage Shows Fierce Clashes between Syrian Army & US Backed Islamic Terrorists.”21 That contrast couldn’t be clearer, Abdalrahman remembered: “When we are besieged, we all the time see the drones of the Assad regime flying over the city,” their footage “telling lies.”

Drones allow advocacy groups to see over walls, peer deep into inaccessible rainforests, and capture footage from just across town. Indeed, one of the first things Monther and his young colleagues did was to fly a drone over their university, which they hadn’t seen in five years. When they first started flying, people assumed it belonged to the regime, “They said it’s a spy drone, we should shoot that drone down, so it’s not targeting our neighborhoods.” Frequent flights and some neighborly outreach prevented the drone’s downing by friendly fire. Nevertheless, Abdalrahman and Monther estimate that they lost 20 drones over the course of the conflict. These losses are due to risky flights that basically involve “gambling to take good footage from regime areas,” but they are also the result of the regime’s efforts to shoot down their devices or jam their control signals. Such are the basic back-and-forth struggles between regimes and challengers. For now, the aerial struggle has subsided, as both Abdalrahman and Monther fled Aleppo as Syrian and Russian troops moved in. Their departure was marked by a final insult, Monther remembered: “I lost three laptops and a drone—the Russian officer stole it from the bus where I was. As part of the forced evacuation agreement, police were not allowed to open bags—guns weren’t allowed, and I didn’t have guns, but they saw the laptops, which is the worst gun for them.”

Monther and Abdalrahman are citizen journalists as well as activists. They plied their trade with laptops and mobile phones. Did the addition of UAVs to their repertoire matter? In the face of the total destruction of Aleppo, such questions may seem beside the point. But when we think of journalists’ work as witness to war crimes, it is important to ask questions about how data has been gathered. Drones do fly in new places—over volcanoes and endangered flora, for example. This usage is hardly disruptive, as few political or economic interests are threatened by affordable data from previously inaccessible bits of the earth. To say there are few examples of emergent and disruptive drone use is not to say that there are none at all.

In conflict zones, UAVs have been used to document the scale of destruction, but they have also been used to document the fighting itself. Flying directly over firefights is what qualifies drone use as emergent in this case. Even prior to the broad availability of affordable UAVs, it was not possible for non-military aircraft to overfly active conflict. The piloted aircraft would have simply been shot down. True, journalists on foot can follow the action. But drones do them one better by gaining a perspective that ground-bound journalists cannot, and by doing so at a proximity that helicopters cannot risk. A bird’s eye view of the conflict zone would be impossible, since surface-to-air missiles and groundfire could quickly disable a helicopter or aircraft. The emergent properties of this usage are directly tied to the fact that images can be made without risk to human life (rather than the lower costs of running a drone in comparison to a helicopter). Aleppo fell as I wrote this chapter, but both sides continued to use UAVs. For civil society, drone footage capturing active firefights and their aftermath have the potential to fundamentally challenge official narratives about the nature of tactics and targets.


Emergent and non-disruptive uses emerge in areas where UAVs are the only way to get the job done, but doing the job doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. Drone use in scientific research and environmental conservation provides an ideal example. In his work on food shortages in the ocean, Griffith University’s Dr. Jan-Olaf Meynecke worried that the health of humpback whales might be compromised in ways unseen from shore. He turned to UAVs for help. Meynecke positions drones over whale’s blowholes, allowing him to sample exhaled mucus every few minutes. The samples are sent for DNA analysis in his lab at Australia’s Griffith University.

This type of research was not previously possible. Sampling DNA of live whales living in the wild required the use of boats and crew, which disturbed the whales’ behavior. Additionally, boats and crews are expensive and intrusive. Alternative aerial sampling methods, such as the use of large, fuel-powered remote helicopters, are more dangerous, significantly louder, and substantially more disruptive (though researchers attempted this approach in 2009). However, using the DJI Phantom, a popular model he purchased in 2013 for about US$700, Meynecke was able to capture information once out of reach. “The fact that drones have become more affordable and easier to control, with more air time, provides a completely new dimension for research,” Meynecke explained in an email conversation with my colleague, Elizabeth Cychosz.

Here in Southern California, the local zoo has branched out into drone research, this time in the Arctic. Collaborating with engineers from Northrop Grumman, a team from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has launched drones in Manitoba, Canada. Using a UAV engineered to operate in Arctic conditions and do so more quietly than a helicopter, future researchers can ultimately observe bears in places where human researchers cannot realistically go. One goal is to research bears in active ice areas, as climate change may affect whether and how bears move from land to ice. “It can give us an unseen eye into polar bear life,” researcher Nicholas Pilfold said in an interview with our local NPR affiliate.22 “We’re trying to push the technology to go to regions where humans rarely go and areas that are difficult for us to access.”

It is not just biologists who are using UAVs. Scientists in fields as varied as archaeology and meteorology have adopted them as tools for collecting data and exploring new environs. Incorporating drones into scientific research projects has enabled scientists to conduct research activities that would have formerly been unsafe for humans to conduct themselves. For example, a California Institute of Technology astrobiologist teamed up with a drone-equipped filmmaker to explore the lava lake at Marum Crater, Vanuatu. Their goal was to create a 3D map of the lake and sample its soil for life.23 In another example, archaeologists at the University of Arkansas and University of North Florida used UAVs to collect thermal imagery of archaeological sites to reveal previously unidentified structures, obscured for centuries by erosion and foliage.24 “[Drones] are on their way to becoming this indispensable and revolutionary technology,” Adam Watts told an interviewer at the journal Nature.25

Scientists run into many of the same legal hurdles as other drone users, with local legislation often limiting where they may conduct certain types of research. Meynecke referenced a three- to four-month process to acquire permits in Australia necessary to carry out his research on whales. However, because many of these projects are funded at least in part by governments, such as with the United States’ NASA or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists have an advantage when seeking permission. In mid-2015, for example, the Federal Aviation Authority granted permission to a research collaboration based out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, to fly a drone over a 54,000 square mile area across Texas and Oklahoma in order to study tornadoes and other extreme weather events—a scope not easily imaginable in other contexts.26 In subsequent years such permits, and permission to fly beyond line of sight, have become more common, but it is often major corporations who are best positioned to secure these opportunities.

An ability to work effectively—if slowly and bureaucratically—within the confines of existing laws and policies reflects how this type of use is both emergent and non-disruptive. Using drones for conservation and scientific research enables scientists to study parts of the natural world that were previously inaccessible, marking this use as emergent. It is non-disruptive because scientific research is a widely accepted priority and norm. Although researchers are currently discussing the ethical implications of drone use for scientific and conservation purposes, the use itself is often an extension of traditional and accepted research practices.27


Globally, slavery flourishes in unregulated economic sectors and overlooked social spaces. Slavery is illegal worldwide, but is practiced globally. The social scientist and anti-slavery expert Kevin Bales, my colleague at the University of Nottingham, has pioneered research on the topic, and his findings are sobering.28 Tens of millions of people still live in slavery. Slavery, writ large, is when one person holds another through force, fraud, threats, or coercion for the purpose of economic exploitation. The forms of exploitation vary widely and include trafficking for sexual exploitation (sometimes called sex trafficking), forced marriage, wartime slavery, and bonded labor.29

Half of the people living in slavery worldwide are estimated to live in a belt that spans Pakistan, India, and Nepal. I wrote my last book about exploitation in India and spent countless hours trekking through the hinterland to interview perpetrators and survivors of debt bondage.30 A debt bondage system turns small loans into long-term obligations, and this economic exploitation is amplified by a culture of caste inequality. The result is millions of lives trapped in extreme poverty with no hope of escape. The exploitation I tracked took place in the fields, stone quarries, and brick kilns of rural India. This industry is widespread and victimizes millions. Why does this problem persist into the present? In interview after interview, I heard stories about how little local officials cared about enforcing the law. These reports of corruption and indifference line up with Bales’ research. He finds that poverty and corruption are two of the key factors driving exploitation.31

This corruption is pervasive at the grassroots, but endemic throughout the official systems tasked with keeping track of brick kilns and their operation. As a result, no entity in India manages a comprehensive list of the number of kilns, to say nothing of the rate of on-site exploitation. Researchers and activists who want to target these spaces for research or interventions are left to their own devices, working at a painstaking pace across an unmanageably large swath of the subcontinent. A population-level assessment of the number of kilns would be a boon to both scholars and India’s nascent anti-slavery movement.

Strong associations of advocacy groups have mapped out these locations terrestrially, but this is a slow and arduous process. At the University of Nottingham, our Slavery from Space project has set out to change that.32 The project draws on the experience of Doreen Boyd, an earth-observation scholar, and Stuart Marsh, a geospatial engineer at Nottingham’s Geospatial Institute, as well as the expertise of Planet Labs, a private earth-imaging firm. At Nottingham, Kevin, Stuart, Doreen, and I are part of a unique interdisciplinary Rights Lab focused on pathbreaking research on slavery and emancipation. This includes rights-focused earth observation that draws on a combination of satellites, crowd sourcing, and artificial intelligence to scan satellite data and create the first register of brick kilns in India. Future applications could include documenting the scope of the fishing industry in Ghana or charcoal harvesting in the Amazon. Exploitation is rampant in each place.

This process got its start as a crowd-sourcing initiative. The idea was to recruit volunteers to analyze photos from Google Maps and tag areas that looked like brick kilns. When this pilot was successful, the team expanded its efforts to machine learning. Of course, none of this will be of any use without a vibrant and robust network on the ground. Better views of old problems can only complement new solutions. This is the point made by observers like Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson at the UK-based advocacy group Anti-Slavery International, who noted that there are “more pressing challenges like … withheld wages, lack of transparent accounting, [and] no enforcement of existing labor laws.”33 For those familiar with the struggle for indigenous, women’s, and Dalit rights in India, these are perennial concerns for which there must be democratic solutions. Satellite imagery offers a key pressure point in international advocacy efforts, giving civil society groups leverage in shifting behaviors of elected officials and bureaucratic officials alike.34

The use of satellites to identify potential sites of exploitation is not emergent—a functioning and honest government could develop this assessment using far older technologies, like bureaucracy and the social survey.35 Whether this use of satellites is disruptive cannot be answered so easily. If by disruptive we mean the use of a technology to do something politically or socially unacceptable, and by non-disruptive we mean the use of a technology to do something that is acceptable to dominant political and social norms, then we must determine what constitutes social and political acceptability in any particular case.

The critical question, then, is why the Indian state has failed to develop a system for auditing and inspecting sites where labor rights violations regularly occur. It is widely recognized that it is low caste community members who are the most vulnerable to severe exploitation in India. Why has casteism, like racism in the United States, proven so durable? There is a convincing argument that both represent widely held social and political norms. If this is the case, then the use of technology to illuminate the prevalence of exploitation in a political space where the rights of the marginalized are regularly violated is disruptive. The logic of this argument stands, whether in relation to caste in India, as satellites map kiln operations, or race in America, where drones could follow abusive law enforcement officials on their beat. At the Slavery from Space project, our use of satellites is non-emergent and disruptive. It could be done using lots of other tools, but it isn’t.

Until now.

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