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Drones and Aerial Observation


Drones and Aerial Observation

New Technologies for Property Rights, Human Rights, and Global Development: A Primer


By Faine Greenwood and Konstantin Kakaes

July 22, 2015

Most people lack clear and secure rights to property—land, natural resources, and other goods and assets. That lack is in part a consequence of political and social breakdowns, and in part driven by informational deficits. Such property rights are crucial to human prosperity. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are able to gather large amounts of information cheaply and efficiently by virtue of their aerial perspective, as can unpowered platforms like kites and balloons. That information―in the form of images, maps, and other data―can be used by communities to improve the quality and character of their property rights.

New America is pleased to publish a short book about how drones can be used in furtherance of property rights and in other, related aspects of global development. This book, or primer, is meant to be useful to practitioners who fly drones, regulators who regulate them, and the general public who seek to understand their capabilities and impact.

The primer is available for download at:

It begins with a capsule history of drones, describing the coming together of a set of technologies―from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to miniaturized gyroscopes and cheap digital cameras―that have allowed small drones to become powerful mapmaking devices.

Mathew Lippincott and Shannon Dosemagen of Public Lab, a "civic science" group, try to answer the question: “How do we use drones to get good data for good purposes?”

Faine Greenwood writes about the nuts and bolts of how to use drones to make maps, from how to plan a route, to what software to use in creating 3-dimensional models from aerial imagery. She then writes about drone mapmakers in places like Indonesia, Albania, and Guyana, with an in-depth case study on the Peruvian Ministry of Culture’s drone team.

Patrick Meier of UAViators, an association of humanitarian drone pilots, writes about the use of drones in disaster response, for instance in the aftermath of earthquakes earlier this year in Nepal. Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, an ecologist and drone pioneer, writes about the use of drones in conservation. Drones have been used to study animals ranging from orangutans to salmon, from the tropics to the poles. Wich provides an authoritative account of drone use in scientific conservation efforts.

Konstantin Kakaes writes a chapter delineating the limits of drones in the protection of human rights. Kakaes’s chapter discusses the tradeoffs between drone and satellite imagery, and the changing role of information in humanitarian response. The book concludes with a report by Kakaes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping operation. The eastern Congo has been at war for nearly twenty years; the final chapter of the book tells the story of the Italian drones, flown by American contractors that the UN uses to monitor the activity of armed groups.

This primer was edited by Konstantin Kakaes. It is published in conjunction with a website,, which comprises a database of global drone use in these sectors, as well as the first comprehensive compilation of global drone regulations.

The primer and website are made possible with support of Omidyar Network and Humanity United.