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Drones: Political Activist’s New Best Friend?

By Maria Andersen on September 22, 2014


In many countries, political protests remain a risky business. If a protest goes right, it can result in reformed policies or political change. When it goes wrong, citizens can be arrested or killed, and reforms delayed or discarded. How can we help mitigate some of the risks of political protests?

What About Drones?

At a recent IREXtech Deep Dive, participants explored how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, may just be a protestor’s best friend.

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Soaring high above the crowds, a drone can survey a protest scene and can transmit real-time information useful to the protestors. Using visual, infrared, and motion sensors, drones can record the number of protestors and their physical location.

By attaching a Go-Pro camera to the drone, the UAV can also collect video footage and document the political action. Audio of the event can be recorded, or pre-recorded messages broadcast to the protesting crowd.

Information collection is useful, but even more important, is the drone’s ability to report what it has monitored.

A Friend in the Sky

Drones sent by a NGO that favors civil activism and political rights can scoped out the protest scene and report necessary data back to the NGO, who in turn, can parlay this information back to the protestors on the ground, perhaps, through a secure mobile app on the protestor’s phones.

The process can be instantaneous – and life saving. Envision a group of passionate protestors, who are in a square, in the heat of loud support for political change, and then a swarm of police officers approaches the engaged crowd, armed with tear gas and, worse, the authority to shut down the movement and even imprison citizens who are exercising their right to free speech. In this example, a video camera on the drone can see the cops early on and inform the protestors, who can take protective action.

Another example, and fun mental image, is imagining a square of protestors, with many, perhaps hundreds, of drones hovering over their heads like a cloud of gnats. In this scenario, the drones also provide security, distracting the police if they try to break up the rally, and allowing the protestors to disperse and escape.

A Tool for Bad Too

Citizens should be careful. As always, a force of good can be a tool for bad if it ends up in the wrong hands. And drones are no different.

It only takes one case of drone technology in political protests to alert the government, and give them ideas on drone use. Governments often have larger budgets and a greater capacity to launch large-scale activities. Also, if the police are able to confiscate protesters’ drones, they may gain valuable evidence against the protesters, instantly heightening the danger for the protestors – danger we sought to diminish.

For the same reason, NGOs should be wary of using drones for political action. Drones caught by officials, and linked to the NGO, could open the NGO to the same consequences of the people protesting on the ground.

But risks shouldn’t be a deterrent. We should be careful, yet determined in thinking about how to creatively use drone technology in political activity.

Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development

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Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development and tweets at @maria_andersen
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One Comment to “Drones: Political Activist’s New Best Friend?”

  1. Pat Hall says:

    Interesting, you are right to be cautious, one can imagine countermeasures of drone fights in the sky, or even the capture of drones by larger drones. Lets keep the use of drones by NGOs focused on data gathering in the NGO’s area of concern and avoid their use in the surveillance scenarios described.