The Good Drone

Edited by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, 202 pp.:  9780367000844 (hbk)

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert’s collected volume entitled ‘The Good Drone’ highlights the materiality of the drone in the context of humanitarian applications and questions. While the book primarily deals with the question of materiality in the context of humanitarian applications, the drone’s history as a military technology and its symbolic significance is not neglected. By asking the contributing authors what it means for a drone to be good, the editors invite them to assess whether drones can be good at all, as well as how this might vary across applications and contexts. As is often seen with emerging technologies of surveillance, there is a Janus faced quality (Lyon 1994) to drones. As Sandvik and Jumbert argue in their introduction, “drones are not ‘pre-destined’ to be good or bad, but are tools that can be used in good or bad ways” (p.14). This collection adds to the emerging literature on the use of drones outside of the battlespace, and specifically, in humanitarian applications. A major contribution of this collection, while considering the positive and negative aspects of the drone, is to warn against “the drone as a technological fantasy, and drone utopianism” (p. 6), which the authors accomplish in a balanced way. The contents from chapter to chapter build well on each other, from the shifting context of drones from military to civil contexts and each engage with the specific complexities of the drone in humanitarian applications.

The first chapter by Krasmann begins by contextualizing the drone in its killing context and takes a biopolitical stance arguing that the drone contributes to the protection of the social body by making it visible. Krasmann ultimately argues that the precision nature of the drone in war is exactly what makes it troublesome for use in humanitarian spaces. Building on the suitability for drones in humanitarian spaces, the next chapter asks whether they are bound to codify life numerically as they do in war zones. Karlsrud and Rosen conclude that while drones can be useful, key issues must first be addressed around data collection and use-policies must be put in place before their wholescale adoption in humanitarian contexts. In chapter three, Liden and Sandvik assess whether humanitarian drones are a cure-all for protecting civilians. Based on the notion of the right to protect, this chapter introduces the positive aspects of drone use but highlights the need to address harms that might arise with persistent drone surveillance and data collection in spaces of discontent. Overall, the first three chapters engage with important questions around the perception of drones by individuals who are subject to them on the ground, as well as the ways that the technical capabilities of drones might lend themselves to ‘function creep.’ While none of the authors negate the positive aspects of drones for humanitarian operations, they argue that much consideration and thought must be put into assuring their appropriate use.

Chapters four and five deal with the introduction of drones in the domestic realm for patrolling and public order. Jumbert’s chapter questions the official reasons for the introduction of drones for surveillance patrols along EU borders. She argues that the discourse surrounding the introduction of drones has positioned them as an asset in assisting with migrant rescue, whereas the project is really more about increasing the reach of the border and extending the areas under near-constant surveillance. This typical border agenda is made clearer when the author links the introduction of drones back to broader EU border projects where the goal is ultimately to keep in the good and desirable elements and keep out the bad, undesirable things, people or otherwise. Sandvik builds on these biopolitical questions and analyzes the domestic use of the drone for policing purposes. The problem uncovered by Sandvik is the framing of drones in the domestic space for policing and public order purposes, in that the question has become more about how to make drones more effective rather than whether drones should be introduced in the first instance. Echoing the other chapters, these two chapters highlight the concerns for data collection, privacy and surveillance, despite the potentially beneficial applications.

The next two chapters assess the use of drones for commercial and research purposes, looking at their adoption for precision agriculture and wildlife monitoring. Bolman’s chapter on agricultural drones engages with the strategies of normalization employed by industry to make drones seem necessary for farmers. He notes that precision agriculture has always adjusted alongside new technologies and drones are not unique in this sense; but he argues that the drone contributes to a Foucauldian articulation of neoliberal man. In this sense, farmers are repurposed as purely economic actors, in order to help accelerate the commercialization of drones, land speculation, and surveillance in ways that serve to exacerbate global resource inequality. Chapter seven highlights the role of the drone in the world of conservation science and speaks to its flexibility – which is important for this kind of research. Using the case of studying orangutans in Indonesia, Wich, Scott, and Pin Koh address the privacy concerns that arise in these remote contexts. Their recommendation is that prospective drone operations are preceded by engagement with local communities, proper protections for data, and addressing ethical quandaries that arise around data regarding illegal activities like illicit logging and poaching.

The concluding chapter by Kaufmann brings all of the topics full circle by engaging once more with the question of materiality and how a drone’s sensing abilities imitate human bodies and the kind of power this can have in humanitarian and emergency situations. Kaufmann emphasizes how technologies alter “relationships, practices, and epistemologies of emergency governance,” in the ways they interact with human beings (p. 169).

Aiming to “chart a path between determinism and constructivism,” (p.5) all of the authors engage with questions about whether the drone is neutral and what impacts it has when adopted in particular spaces. Throughout, there is a flow in the way most of the authors contest and contextualize the technological capabilities of drones within broader political and social arrangements. By engaging with the drone in the spaces where they are deployed, most of the authors challenge and question the technological optimism that has accompanied the advent of drones in the domestic space. Overall, this text adds to emerging literature on the use of drones outside of the battlespace and pushes readers to think about whether or not drones should be used across various applications just because they can be used.

Share this: