Drones in Environmental Humanities Research

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Editor’s Note: This is the first post in the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers. This post was cross-posted to Active History.

“Okay Dimitrijs, now go somewhere cool.” 

Charlotte is wearing a heavy set of white VR glasses, standing in the sunshine on a University of Stavanger football pitch in Southern Norway. Dimitrijs is flying the drone. We are a mixed group of six environmental humanities scholars from the Greenhouse here to try out the university’s drone fleet and discuss their possible application to our research. 

Mehdi Torkaman wearing the VR glasses as he controls the drone
Mehdi Torkaman wearing the VR glasses as he controls the drone. Photo by Finn Arne Jørgenson. Used with permission.

We look at the drone, pointing to where it hovers twenty metres over the grass. It looks back, one glassy black eye rolling toward us. Sleek and glittering, it reminds us of a dragonfly in both its motion and in its viciousness. On the screen of a mobile phone, we can look at it as it looks at us. Under its gaze we are slightly foreshortened, seven academics bundled in our down jackets and wool hats, faces turned up toward the sky, our shadows stretching long.

Photos by Mehdi (left) and Finn Arne (right). Used with permission.

Charlotte, alone among us, rides with the drone. She’s got a drone’s eye view. But what does this new perspective reveal for her? What kinds of humanities questions might we put to it? Can the drone contribute to telling more-than-human stories? Considering the drone’s embeddedness in structures of power, colonialism, and violence, are there ethical ways of using it? 

Special thanks to workshop participants Charlotte Wrigley, Dmitrijs Porsnovs, Endre Harvold Kvangraven, Finn Arne Jørgensen, Mehdi Torkaman, and Sebastian Lundsteen. Thanks also to our host Ingebjørg Madland at the Didaktisk Digitalt Verksted at the University of Stavanger

Drones in Humanities Research

In picking up the drone as a research tool, we hope that it will (as Charlotte suggested) take us “somewhere cool.” Instead, Dimitris crashes it into some bushes. Here is the perfect metaphor for our wider engagement with this potential research tool. Few of us have used drones before. We are frankly not very good at it. Like all digital humanities tools, the drone proves difficult, messy, and fraught. We imagined glossy overhead shots of campus, understanding the perspective of birds and insects, and getting a glimpse of the OysterCatcher nests on our office roof. Instead, the wind tugs at the rotors and the sun glares in our lens. 

The drone’s messiness — the gap it creates between ourselves and the world — is its greatest value. Drones have been successfully integrated into several different fields of academic research with good results. Their unique perspective (high enough to get a “bird’s eye view” and yet low enough not to lose detail) has led to innovations in archaeology, forestry, and cultural heritage. Multispectral imagery can, for example, create maps of a landscape that reveal patterns in tree cover, or reveal human structures buried underground. Underwater drones allow us to access lost shorelines, settlements flooded by hydroelectric power, or artificial reefs. In “Thinking with the Drone,” Ole Jensen argues that it grants us access to “volumetric thinking,” a way of comprehending the three dimensionality of space otherwise inaccessible in traditional cartographies and their “flat projections.”1 

My own wildfire research has already benefited from the drone’s unique “between” point of view. Since the early twentieth century, foresters and farmers in Southern Norway planted Sitka Spruce, a fast-growing North American species, to protect their farms from the wind and harvest for timberwood . Sitka can be difficult to see from the ground, blending into the background of its deciduous neighbours. Satellite imagery is equally unrevealing — not only are Google Earth’s images sometimes years out of date (Sitka grows fast), but from above the tree blends into stands of juniper and pine. 

With the drone, Sitka suddenly looks out of place. It sticks up above its neighbours in shaggy, unnatural clumps. Its alien nature becomes visible. Drone photographs of Sørmarka, the treed area behind the university, tell a story of plantations, agriculture, and ecology– the life story of a species only partially under human control.

Sitka from the ground. Sitka from satellite. Sitka from the drone. Photos by author, satellite image from Google Earth.

Drones are close enough to be intimate, yet far away enough to be disorienting. That disorientation is useful for engaging multispecies narratives. My colleagues and I could imagine drones provoking questions about a landscape we might not otherwise have considered, revealing relations not obvious in the written record, or magnifying voices we might not otherwise hear. Animal or human pathways through the forest become obvious from the drone’s point of view. The changing contour of a river might indicate changing water levels or upstream development. Similarly to the way environmental historians have used GIS, the drone might provide accessible means for telling stories. A drone video could be a poignant argument about the relationship between people and landscapes, conveying meaning in a compelling visual format. 

Image from drone's view of grass and forested areas.
A desire-line from Sørmarka’s many humans and animal users is rendered visible from the drone’s view. Photo by Finn Arne. Used with permission.

Indeed, the drone seems to be a natural ally in “reading” the land like an archive. If the land is a text, the eye of the drone offers a potentially effective method for seeing it in its fullness. 

Yet we cannot do so uncritically. As part of our conversation, Mehdi asks whether in granting us access to a new point of view, has the drone enriched our connection to the places we work with or divorced us from them? Ensconced in its buzzing, plastic body, we become limited to a purely visual understanding of the world. We gain a kind of power through invincibility, but we lose access to four of our five senses. On reflection, most of us are ambivalent about this tradeoff. In a practical sense, the drone takes us outside of ourselves and in doing so changes our relationship with the world, and not always in positive ways.

Drones and their Infrastructures

Back inside the warmth of the University’s didaktisk digitalt verksted (didactic digital workshop), our conversation begins to circle around an immaterial drone infrastructure no less revealing than the practical one we engaged outside. While some of the applications we have imagined for drone research are theoretically possible, they are almost completely unachievable under the law. The stringent rules around flying drones seem to preclude us from doing anything fun or interesting. In Norway one must register one’s ID with the state, take a course and pass a test even to fly a hobby drone. Some of Southern Norway’s richest areas for bird life are too close to the airport to fly in and using a drone to take a look at some of Stavanger’s local oil infrastructure is illegal. 

Image of map featuring overlapping regulatory and restricted zones for flying drones around Stavanger.
Overlapping regulatory and restricted zones for flying drones around Stavanger. Source: DJI Geo Zones 

In engaging the drone we have engaged in a new relation of power: patriarchal, colonial, and capitalist. Our experience of drone flying is mediated entirely through it. When I take up the controls, I also take up that immutable set of relations. As a cis white woman of settler descent, taking up that mantle is awkward — but not as awkward as it could be. In preparation for flying, I had to watch a video where a female-coded drone chastises its white, male-coded operator for disregarding EU safety rules. Am I supposed to identify with the drone here, or the pilot? Am I a user or am I being used? Subject or object? 

Image of Mica flying a drone
Mica flying the drone. Photo by Finn Arne. Used with permission.

Philip Olson and Christine Labuski call the set of relations surrounding drones “white technomasculinity.”2 They speculate that drones “provide a fresh way to experience…privilege,” particularly among a white, male, expert demographic. Not all those privileges are ones I enjoy, and the places where my identity chaffs against the drone’s infrastructure allows me access to another kind of “between” space. Just as the drone grants me access to volumetric thought, so too it grants me access to a space between masculine and feminine, surveiller and surveilled. Drone infrastructure, much of which has been rather hastily erected in recent years, brings relations of power between people and the state, humans and non-humans, and people and the land into sharp relief.  

Where are we going? Drones as a research tool

As environmental humanities researchers, where will we go with the drone? A certain group of scholars seem determined to rehabilitate it as a force for good: activists are subverting this piece of military technology for art, protest, and outright insurrection. My colleagues and I doubt that the drone can ever be separated from its violent infrastructures; yet, the drone retains promise as a tool for humanities work. It represents a new way of asking questions and telling stories from a three dimensional space. By riding in the body of the drone, my colleagues and I unsettled ourselves in valuable ways. We have read (and written) in a new language, facilitated by the technological infrastructure of the drone. On the “maker turn” in the humanities, David Staley argues that “creating physical objects [is] an interpretive act.”3 While the products of drone usage are not physical in the sense Staley intended, they nevertheless offer considerable interpretive power. Whether we “go somewhere cool” or end up in the bushes remains to be seen.

Feature image Photo by Mehdi Torkaman
Blurred image of bushes seen from drone.
Drone in the bushes. Photo by author.


1 Jensen, Ole B. “Thinking with the drone–visual lessons in aerial and volumetric thinking.” Visual Studies 35, no. 5 (2020): 424.
2 Olson, Philip and Christine Labuski. “There’s Always a [white] man in the loop: The Gendered and Racialized politics of civilian Drones.” Social Studies of Science 48 (4)(August 2018): 557. 
3 Staley, David. “On the Maker Turn in the Humanities.” Chapter 2 of Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentry Sayers. University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 32.

Further Reading

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. The Good Drone: How Social Movements Democratize Surveillance. MIT Press, 2020.

Kapadia, Ronak. Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War. Duke University Press, 2019.

Kaplan, Caren. Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime From Above. Duke University Press, 2018. 

Keen, Adrienne and Gregory Hitch. “Drone Warriors: The Art of Surveillance and Resistance at Standing Rock,” Edge Effects, 7 November, 2019. 

Olson, Philip and Christine Labuski. “There’s Always a [white] man in the loop: The Gendered and Racialized politics of civilian Drones.” Social Studies of Science 48 (4)(August 2018): 540-563. 

Pong, Beryl. “The Aesthetics of Drone Warfare.” The British Academy Blog, 14 September 2021.

Richardson, Michael. “Drone cultures: encounters with everyday militarisms.” Continuum, 34(6): 858-869.

Schneph, J.D. “Unsettling Aerial Surveillance: Surveillance Studies after Standing Rock,” Surveillance and Society 17(4): 747-751. 

Staley, David. “On the Maker Turn in the Humanities.” Chapter 2 of Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentry Sayers. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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