How drones changed environmental activism in Australia

By Angela Heathcote | September 19, 2018

Drones have made it easier for environmental activists in Australia to uncover environmental destruction that previously may have slipped under the radar.

JOHN MURPHY IS the drone expert at Greenpeace. He first used a drone in the context of his environmental activism eight years ago to monitor orangutan habitats in Sumatra that were under threat from the palm oil industry. Since then, he’s pioneered their widespread uptake across the organisation. Now, he says he can’t imagine completing a research project or investigation without one. In John’s opinion, “[drones] are on the edge of breaking through to be universally adopted by the environmental movement.”

Last week, an investigation by ABC News revealed that controversial mining company Adani had broken the law by allegedly fast-tracking its mining operations in the Great Artesian Basin, including clearing vegetation, constructing roads and putting in underground infrastructure for future water extraction. The story broke after ABC Investigations were provided with drone footage by environmental group Coast and Country that showed images of six dewatering bores. The images have now prompted an investigation by the Queensland Government.

“The way the media ran with the Adani story was that the drone footage was this unique, novel thing, but I think next year that kind of footage, that kind of story will be run-of-the-mill because we’re seeing more environmental groups taking up the technology,” John says.  According to academics, drone technology is quickly becoming an effective part of the activist toolkit, with their ability to give audiences a bird’s eye view of environmental destruction, making them essential for media campaigns that grab people’s attention.

“There’s 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, but in the meantime they’ve been used for some incredible feats of activism,” says Bradley Garrett, a social and cultural geographer from the University of Sydney, who’s written extensively about drones. “They’ve completely changed the game,” he says.

Eyes in the sky

John has been an activist with Greenpeace for more than 20 years, lending his unique skill set to a number of different projects. He’s a trained pilot so he would often survey the sea for illegal whaling and fishing activities. “We wanted to look at what was going on beyond what our eyes could see and, previously, the only way you could do that was by hiring a helicopter which is expensive, so I was always looking for cheaper options,” he says.

Improvements to the accessibility and affordability of drones has seen their dramatic uptake by the environment movement. In 2017, the Wilderness Society raised $30,000 to purchase a fleet of drones to film land-clearing across Australia, which they said “is the best way we can help arm journalists, decision makers and local communities with a more accurate picture of what’s going on.” The Australian Conservation Foundation, rather than using drones to capture environmental destruction, recently harnessed the technology to capture the beauty of the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland.

The affordability of remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) has enabled Greenpeace to start experimenting with the technology in Antarctic waters, where illegal whaling and fishing persists. Just recently, John conducted ocean surveillance work in the area. “Rather than flying through the air, they fly through the ocean and they don’t create the same disturbances that humans often do when diving,” John says. “The ROVs used to be extremely expensive but the smartphone revolution has given us cheap electronics so the cost has come down dramatically.”

The technology has also improved enough that you don’t have to be an expert or enthusiast to operate one. “You used to have to build drones yourself,” says Bradley. “The drones now being produced are incredible pieces of technology, almost foolproof. They’re extremely difficult to crash. A lot of citizen journalists have added the drone to their tool kit and I’d predict that with most campaigns in the future, there will be a dedicated drone pilot to document any direct action and make sure that the authorities don’t step over the line.”

The catch-up game

Bradley is unconvinced that Australian law would be able to keep up with the dramatically fast changes to drone technology. Currently, only airports have geo-fences that prevent drones from taking flight, but Bradley predicts there may be a push in the future to apply geo-fences more routinely. “It won’t take long before giant corporations start pressuring drone manufacturers to put geo-fences around their mining operations,” he says. “We still have a sense that the airways are public and shared with all sorts of people.”

John agrees that government and other interested bodies may become more interested in the application of geo-fences. “You can imagine that there may be some gas drilling being done by the Australian government that they would then lobby the drone company to give them exemptions, it’s like putting a virtual fence up,” he says, adding that whether or not these geo-fences go up depends on whether drone manufacturers like DJI, the largest drone company in the world, decide to comply.

Overall, Bradley doesn’t see much difference between citizens capturing footage with drones and CCTV and other security cameras. However, he suggests the argument that the government will make is that a lot of the footage they capture is in the public interest and is captured by public bodies, “but that isn’t the case,” he says. “The vast majority of CCTV cameras are owned by private companies, so I don’t think there should be a heavier burden placed on the citizen collecting footage than is placed on the government or corporations. It’s the watched watching the watchers in my view.”

Either way, Bradley says the impact of drone technology on the environmental movement is huge. “It gives the public something to hold onto. Once you see the footage with proper scale, you can see the extent of the destruction and people become much more engaged. It brings people into the conversation in a way that’s tangible and visceral, it’s not speculative.”