Drones are disrupting how many things are done in the modern age, from goods deliveries to warfare. Researchers are increasingly tapping into the power of drones as cheap and rapid ways of collecting data. Here I explore how drones can also be used as tools to communicate change, and to better engage stakeholders during research.
In August 2015, my colleague Russell Layberry and I set out on a little adventure through fields and marshes. Our destination: the River Glyme in Oxfordshire. It was artificially straightened and deepened almost a century ago to prevent flooding, but river engineers at the time couldn’t anticipate the ecological impact of their work. Divorcing the river from its floodplain resulted in serious degradation of its habitats and fish populations, and increased the risk of flooding.
To turn around this sorry state of affairs, the charity Wild Oxfordshire set up the Evenlode Catchment Partnership (ECP), a collaborative project bringing together an impressive set of partners, including Thames Water, Environment Agency and local landowners. Their mission: to improve water quality, enhance flood management and enrich biodiversity across the Evenlode Catchment (an area through which the Glyme flows), all the while engaging with the local community.
Wild Oxfordshire reached out to us to record the state of the river from the sky. By capturing high-definition video at different altitudes, we characterised various aspects of the river, from the general shape of its meanders to the distribution of Himalayan balsam (an invasive plant with pink flowers just a few centimetres wide) along its banks. This allowed us to develop a baseline of this stretch of river in amazing detail. The ECP were then able to accurately monitor the evolution of the channel during and after the restoration work.
On top of the ‘data bit’, we realised our footage could be used as a communication tool. The beauty of the river was revealed from above, and our unusual vantage point helped local landowners and users to reimagine the landscape around them. We made a short video of our first drone flight, which the folks at the ECP shared through newsletters and at stakeholder meetings.
Fast-forward a year or so. I’m standing by a fence in the middle of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, choking from all the dust in the air. In the distance is Oyu Tolgoi, an enormous copper and gold mine owned by Rio Tinto, plonked in the middle of one of the harshest and most remote environments in the world. My friend and colleague Troy Sternberg is working on a project funded by the World Bank to resolve a dispute between Oyu Tolgoi and the nomadic herders who have traditionally lived and worked on this land. And I’m here as the ‘drone guy’.
Once again, the role of the drone was two-fold. First, the imagery could be used as evidence of land degradation in areas near the mine and around water sources. Second, it was a neat way of engaging some of the herders in participatory mapping. By letting them see, in real-time, the data we were capturing from the landscape, and in some cases letting them fly the drone themselves, the herders felt a lot more involved in the research process. We hoped that this would translate into better transparency, and ultimately greater trust in our results — something that is difficult to achieve in dispute resolution exercises between extractive industries and locals.
The restoration of the River Glyme was a great success, with a host of freshwater fish and plant species becoming established following the works. The Mongolian herders eventually reached an historic agreement with Oyu Tolgoi. While not all grievances were resolved, the mine agreed to improve water access for herders and to help diversify the economy of local communities. In both examples, drone imagery was useful for gathering data quickly and efficiently. Crucially, though, it also helped us to more productively engage stakeholders with our research, by offering them new perspectives on the landscapes they cherished.