Drones – The New Watchdogs for Environmental Activism


Drones have been around longer than you think. Perhaps not in the compact, commercial, radio-controlled versions you see whizzing around lakes, over coastlines and above marathons that you see today, but as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), we can look back to the mid-nineteenth century to find their origins. In 1849, Austrian forces besieging Venice used balloons carrying timed-fuse explosives to bombard the city. The attack was mostly a debacle, as wind changes forced many balloons off-target with some drifting back over their own lines – however at least one fell into the city. We have our first instance of aerial bombardment by drone! In the 21st Century, UAV’s are now directed by ‘pilots’ who, from the comfort of their own headquarters, use consoles to steer drones and attack targets using ‘surgical strikes’ in far-away countries, regardless of the international rules governing sovereignty or ethical implications of automating warfare in this way.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the first thing people thought when they developed UAV’s was “how do I stick a bomb on it?” After all, weapons research and development has been behind many technological advancements that have gone on to provide legions of peacetime applications, from medical advancements to computing. Indeed, the ARPANET, precursor to the internet itself, was funded by the US Department of Defence in the 1960’s.

After attack, the chief military raisons-d’etre for drone usage is surveillance – the first drone I ever saw was cruising down a city street doing a period of unrest – and this function has translated drones well into the commercial world.

Environmental activists now deploy drones effectively to surveil commercial outfits operating, with or without license, in sensitive environmental areas. Prior to the technology it would be time and resource intensive to get teams into difficult-to-reach areas, confronted as they were by physical barriers, or even armed guards, well away from the area of actual activity. Now a birds-eye view can provide hard evidence, recorded and analysed without physical risk and at a fraction of the time and cost.

On a vast continent like Australia, where the economy is heavily dependent on extraction industries that generally operate in remote areas with restricted access and limited regulatory oversight, environmental activism by drone has been a godsend. Earlier this month drones were used to expose the operations of the mining company Adani at the controversial Carmichael coal mine in north Queensland. It is alleged that the company has fast-tracked its operations and sunk groundwater bores into the Great Artesian Basin for dewatering purposes – the depressurising of coal seams and lowering of groundwater tables to facilitate deeper extraction. Whilst activists claim that Adani has not confirmed the environmental impact of its project under the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan, the company maintains it is abiding by conditions set out in their project’s approval. However in a period of extreme drought, where the odds of a bailout of taxpayer-purchased environmental water to farmers is increasingly likely, for a project extracting coal – a chief contributor to human-induced climate change – to help itself to groundwater by sinking bores just after a recent site inspection by the environmental department, it is unsurprising that the public be sceptical, or find these actions insensitive. The Queensland government has subsequently ordered an investigation.

John Murphy, Greenpeace’s drone expert, believes that the use of drones in environmental activism will become the norm, as we see “more environmental groups taking up the technology”.  They are rapidly becoming an essential part of the activist’s toolkit, with their birds-eye views providing headline-grabbing images of the scale of environmental impacts from extractive industries. The increased sophistication, portability and affordability of the technology are also making drones more available for environmental causes.

However, whilst they are proving to be a game-changer for activism, Bradley Garrett from the University of Sydney notes that legal frameworks around the licencing and usage of drones and drone footage as it relates to issues of trespass and privacy means there is “currently a legal window where they can be used for things that aren’t expected or anticipated and we don’t know how long that window will remain open”.  One can safely presume that extractive industries will do whatever they can to influence policy so as to restrict the unauthorised usage of drones in and around their operations.

How does this relate to development? Coal from the Charmichael mine is predominantly for export to fuel India’s growing energy demands. The environmental footprint of Adani’s ambition only starts at the Charmichael mine. From there, it is proposing an overland railway to a port at Abbott Point from which to ship the coal. For this, Adani must negotiate approval of both track and route with indigenous owners, which it does through direct payments to representative organisations and dangling the promise of jobs (although in reality, much of the operations will be automated). The port at Abbott Point itself needs expansion and dredging in order to receive the size of shipping required to export the coal en-masse. Already expansion activity has contaminated waters, but fears of spillages from cargo vessels put the nearby UNESCO protected Great Barrier Reef at risk.

The irony of the risk to the Reef from export operations at Abbott Point is not lost on the fact that the product being exported will be burnt, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing ultimately to fthe urther rising temperatures, sea-level expansion, and ocean acidification that has already bleached large swathes of the Reef.

However the contemporary debate on individual nation’s responsibilities for tackling climate change rests on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, meaning that those who have emitted the most CO2 in the past century shoulder the greater burden of cutting emissions and transitioning to cleaner energy.  India’s (and indeed Australian pro-coal mining supporter’s) argument for continued coal consumption rests not only on their ‘right’ to catch up as an emerging economy, but also on the reality that Carmichael produces a higher-grade (black) coal and therefore releases less CO2 per energy unit provided than more readily available brown-coal.  “Your coal is ‘cleaner’ than our coal”, is basically the argument. There is a kind of environmental blackmail going on whereby India will continue to burn its own low-grade (brown) coal if it cannot access higher-grade sources through trade. However the modernisation development paradigm coupled with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities makes this approach, arguably, justified.


Coming up: Can grassroots environmental activists in the South capitalise on the increasing versatility and affordability of drones to bridge the digital divide?

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