Drones are in the air… and on the walls

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

By Paul Heidebrecht

One of the most exciting times of the year in the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement is when a new exhibit is installed in the Grebel Gallery. In addition to inspiring reflection and conversations among members of our campus and surrounding community, these exhibits also contribute to the creative energy of participants in the Centre. The view outside my office door is always interesting, but our latest exhibit is particularly provocative.

Picture of current Grebel gallery exhibit

Entitled “The Cultural Life of Drones” and curated by Sara Matthews, the intent of this exhibit is to provoke dialogue about drone technologies. It features documentary photography of research Sara has conducted with a flight instructor, drone manufacturer, cartographer, and activist. As I noted last week, one of these people happens to be Branka Marijan, a senior researcher from Project Ploughshares, which makes this exhibit all the more connected to the day-to-day activity of the Centre for Peace Advancement.

It is also resonates with the work of some interesting people I have met over the past year who are

interfaith drones

working at the intersection of peacebuilding and technology in other contexts.

Last June, Nathan Hosler presented a compelling paper on the importance of interfaith engagement to address drone warfare at the Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference and Festival in the Netherlands. Nathan is the Director of the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, DC, and co-chairs a working group for the Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare. That network recently released a report on their 2019 National Training Conference which was held at Princeton Theological Seminary at the end of September.

Last February I collaborated with Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick on a panel at the Ashoka U Exchange in San Diego. Austin is a professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, and the author of The Good Drone: How Social Movements Democratize Surveillance, which will be published by the MIT Press in 2020. In a draft manuscript posted on an open peer review platform, Austin noted that he “wrote this book out of fascination and frustration. Fascination with a range of new technologies like drones and satellites, and frustration with how much of their potential was overlooked by folks studying politics.”

WeRobotics Logo

And a couple of years ago I met Patrick Meier when he came to Waterloo to deliver the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Service Lecture. Patrick is the author of the book Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Action, and the co-founder and CEO of WeRobotics. This organization has been supporting the development of affordable and locally sourced drones to do things such as map disaster zones and deliver medicines.

Like Austin and Patrick, my own view of drones has been nuanced by experiences with positive applications of this technology—for example, last year I provided government engagement coaching to a drone start-up that was seeking partnerships in the agricultural and forestry sectors. Like Nathan (and Branka), I continue to be troubled when I read about the consequences of the military uses of drones. And it is not only churches and peace activists who are calling my attention to this—a recent article in the MIT Technology Review examined the way Afghanistan has been turned into an unwilling testing ground for this technology.

Judging from the reactions and comments I have heard already, I think that over the coming months the Grebel Gallery will provide a great container for dialogue about drones that is informed by a wide range of experiences as well as attitudes and assumptions.