A drone by any other name

Screenshot from a drone video showing activists being sprayed with water in below freezing temperatures as part of protests against the the North Dakota Pipeline.

I use the word “drone” with ambivalence. While it’s a ubiquitous term in the aerial video and photography world, for many, the word “drone” evokes its malevolent uses – warfare and surveillance.

Interestingly, the drone industry itself has tried to distance itself from the word, with many conferences using the words “Unmanned Aircraft.” But this terminology is yet to catch on with the general public. For better or worse, the word “drone” has become shorthand for a device with many different applications from filmmaking, to mapping, to competitive racing.

Ironically perhaps, drones have emerged as a game-changing tool for activists. Environmentalists have used drones to document the extent of manmade disasters. When activists protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock faced police violence, drones run by activist journalists were able to tell the story in a way that captured the attention of the country.

For more on this topic, I recommend Sara Rafsky’s report for WITNESS, Eyes in the Sky: Drones at Standing Rock and the Next Frontier of Human Rights Video, which asks,

Could activists reclaim a technology commonly associated with surveillance and targeted killings as an evidentiary and storytelling tool for advocacy and seeking justice?

Read more at WITNESS Media Lab. CW: Police violence.