Drones for Good: Homemade Quadcopters Are Fighting Deforestation

One organization is teaching local communities around the world how to build drones and monitor illegal logging and mining.

(Photo: Digital Democracy/Twitter)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Imagine you’re an isolated tribal community on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, and the 7 million acres of land you depend on is threatened by illegal logging and mining. How can you protect your land and water? Take to the air—with drones.

That’s what the Wapichana people of Guyana are trying to do with the help of Digital Democracy, an Oakland, California–based organization that helps marginalized communities around the world use technology to defend their rights. The Wapichana, who are estimated to number no more than about 6,000, can’t keep tabs on all of the land they have traditionally used for hunting and fishing. So Digital Democracy activists are working with them to build and deploy drones that can monitor and map the terrain, spotting destructive illegal tree-cutting or earth-gouging.

“We didn’t want to just bring in fancy expensive devices and fly them ourselves,” says Digital Democracy founder Emily Jacobi. “We wanted to empower the community, to teach them how to build them and repair them themselves.”

Analyzing the drone images. (Photo: Courtesy Digital-Democracy.org)

To that end, her colleague Gregor MacLennan travelled to Guyana in October, bringing the supplies to help the tribespeople build a pair of drones from scratch. The conditions were pretty basic: Their lab is a leaf-roofed benab hut, and they’ve had to use jackknives and lollipop sticks as improvised tools. Their first test flights lasted only seconds before the drones made undignified, albeit entertaining, crash landings. But the next round of tests went much better, and they’re tracking their current progress here.

Behind the scenes of building a drone.

The project is still in the experimental phase, but the group has put together an impressive 3-D map of the area around one village. To do so, they flew the drone—which was fitted with a GoPro camera—back and forth over the target area and successfully captured about 500 overlapping photos. Back on the ground, the team used free software to stitch the images together to create the map. Last month, they used pictures taken by drones to help document a swath of illegally logged forest, Jacobi says.

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Drones from a number of other organizations are helping to solve a variety of critical problems beyond deforestation. They’re being used to crack down on illegal fishing in Jamaica, shut down rhino poaching in South Africa, and deliver humanitarian aid in disaster zones. Last spring, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates sponsored a “Drones for Good” competition, awarding $1 million to a Swiss team with a drone that can help rescue disaster victims trapped in confined spaces.

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Digital Democracy describes itself as “technology agnostic," meaning the group will use any kind of tech, not just drones. One of its earliest programs was to help KOFAVIV—a Haitian women’s organization—set up the island nation’s first phone-based emergency response system dedicated to rape and sexual assault. It enables victims to make free calls from their mobile phones to report assaults, which are then logged in a database, and get connected to emergency care including medical, psychological, and legal support.

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Jacobi, a 32-year-old from Indiana, founded the group in 2008. She found herself hooked on international issues after travelling to Cuba at 13 with a youth journalism program.

“I’ve been interested in how to bridge gaps between people ever since,” she says. “We try to help communities on the ground integrate technology into work they’re already doing, whether it’s around human rights or the environment, by connecting them with people here in the U.S. at the cutting edge of technology and research.”

Though it’s still a tiny outfit with an annual budget of around $250,000, Digital Democracy has gained funding and recognition from the likes of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Knight Foundation, and Google. But if it’s proven anything, it’s that with the right tools, it doesn’t cost much to monitor 7 million acres of land.