How to use drones with respect for people and wildlife

New guidelines give advice on drone use for community and environmental groups
Drone. Photo by Mohammad Edliadi/CIFOR-ICRAF

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A growing number of drones fly the skies for conservation and land rights organizations, but if used inappropriately can harm more than help the people and wildlife they aim to protect. In response to this, a consortium of natural and social scientists from the University of Bristol and other research centers recently published a set of guidelines for environmental organizations that use drones.

Many conservation purposes have adopted this technology in recent decades, and since the 2010s drones have become an effective and accessible tool for local communities and Indigenous people to detect those who illegally encroach on their land, to protect land tenure, and other uses. But if used wrong this technology also can annoy or even scare people. As the guidelines mention, just the buzzing noise of drones can be a nuisance.

“From concerns about surveillance and privacy to those around safety and misuse, it’s important to recognize that the sight and sounds of drones can provoke anxiety and fear, as well as excitement and curiosity,” said Anna Jackman, a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Reading, and one of the authors of the guidelines.

Releasing drone footage with people who can be identified from the images can also lead to unintended consequences, such as by reinforcing prejudices of what type of person commits crimes.

“Sometimes stereotypes of who a poacher is get blurred with stereotypes of other outsiders that communities are already afraid are going to threaten them,” said Naomi Millner, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol and an author of the guidelines. She explained that a drone image of someone, say, in a forest could end up causing marginalized groups to be blamed for poaching or other environmental crimes.

Conservation groups have added drones to their toolkits for monitoring species and catching poachers. The drones themselves, however, can impact local fauna, such as by disturbing them. For example, although drones have potential when it comes to studying birds, research has found that they can stress them out if they are approached from above, possibly because it reminds them of a predator swooping in from the sky.

“Irresponsible drone use can also be flagged by other NGOs, local government or companies, said Yves Laumonier, a tropical ecologist at CIFOR-ICRAF and an author of the guidelines. “This could be very bad press to any organization.”

Irresponsible drone use can also be flagged by other NGOs, local government or companies. This could be very bad press to any organization. – Yves Laumonier, a tropical ecologist at CIFOR-ICRAF and an author of the guidelines

Given the risks posed by drones, the authors developed the recent guidelines to help conservation groups use them more responsibly. Before flying drones, the authors recommend that organizations consult local communities in order to both respect local rules and the privacy of local communities. If drone operators are subcontracted, they should be trained to engage with these communities or use a local guide if possible. Conservationists should also use the quietest drone type available.

During flight, drone operators should make sure not to accidentally capture footage of people in which they can be easily identified. If they are monitoring for crime, such as poaching, they should keep in mind the possible implications of releasing this evidence. Along with meeting local regulations, organizations should clearly mark drones and place IDs on them, and drone pilots should be identifiable (for example, by wearing a high vis jacket).

Groups using drones to observe wildlife should have them take off at least 100 meters from the animals and hover as high as possible (while still getting good footage) to avoid disturbing them. The authors recommend flying in a steady “lawnmower” pattern rather than directly at the animals, without abrupt changes to speed, height, or direction.

After the flight, organizations should check the footage with local communities to make sure they are happy with it being shared, as well as share the data and findings from the drone footage with them. They should handle images of people and culturally sensitive sites with care and consider the risks of releasing the drone images before publishing them. They should also properly dispose of drones at the end of their life of to prevent contaminating the environment.

The idea of creating the guidelines was born during a 2021 workshop hosted by the University of Bristol about drones, their use in wildlife conservation and land rights, and their ethical implications. There will be an event held on 11 July 2023 about the guidelines, and the journal Global Social Challenges will also publish a special edition called “Drone Ecologies” the same month that will feature articles discussing how communities use drones and their interaction with conflicts.

With the technology rapidly evolving, Millner foresees the need for more research on the ethics of drone use and updates on the guidelines in the future, perhaps even creating new ones about artificial intelligence.

“[Drones] are a surveillance technology,” she said. “You can get in very close. You can see details. That’s what makes them useful. But the same properties that makes them useful makes them something that can be used against people, and like any visual capture technology, that has its risks.”

“Responsible drone use in biodiversity conservation: Guidelines for environmental and conservation organisations who use drones” highlights key principles for using drones among conservation and land rights defense groups. Drawing on multidisciplinary expertise from the University of Bristol and other research centers, the guidelines explain best practices for before, during, and after drone flights.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact

Naomi Millner at

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