Future Tense

Drones for Peace: The Unmanned Spy Planes That Target Animal Abusers

A Boxing Day hunt in 2011

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Covert “targeting killings” and police surveillance are the two things most commonly associated with drones. But unmanned aircraft are increasingly being used for an altogether different purpose—to crack down on wildlife crimes across the world, from England to Africa.

On Saturday, the British animal welfare charity the League Against Cruel Sports announced plans to use small spy drones to gather evidence on illegal hunting and cruelty to animals in the English countryside. The charity says it is engaged in a “war” against individuals flouting a ban on certain types of hunting that was implemented across England and Wales in 2005. “We are excited to be the first animal welfare charity in Great Britain to be exploring drone technology,” the group’s chief executive, Joe Duckworth, said in a statement. “We are confident that it will make a fantastic contribution to bringing wildlife criminals to justice.”

In both the United Kingdom and United States, it is legal to fly small unmanned aircraft without a license so long as they fly at a low altitude and away from congested areas. As a result, the use of drones to capture images of wrongdoing is a burgeoning new frontier of activism. An animal welfare group from Geneva, Ill., has been deploying a mini “Mikrokopter” drone to capture images of what it describes as “pigeon slaughter.” However, the group has claimed its unmanned aircraft has been repeatedly shot down by hunters—on one occasion near Ehrhardt, S.C., and on another in Berks County, Pa.—causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.

The drones used by the League Against Cruel Sports are being provided by a nonprofit company called ShadowView, which launched in January to help provide drones for environmental and conservation projects. Another of ShadowView’s endeavours, announced last week, will involve flying drones over the Mediterranean Sea this summer to monitor the use of driftnets, a form of fishing banned by the United Nations that can harm dolphins, whales, turtles, sharks, and fish. The founders of the company previously worked with the militant anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (the organization seen on Whale Wars), using remote-controlled spy planes to record seal slaughter in Namibia as part of a specialist unit called “O.R.C.A Force,” led by ShadowView co-founder Laurens De Groot, a former Dutch police officer.

Perhaps more so than any other civilian group, conservationists are embracing drones as a means to further their cause.  Last year, the WWF won Google funding for a project to help protect animals from being poached in Africa and Asia using unmanned aircraft. And similar efforts have been launched to help track orangutans in Indonesia.

Much of the debate around drones remains focused on large armed aircraft like the Predator, which are being deployed by the CIA to remotely kill suspected Islamist militants in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. But the growing use of drones for animal welfare and ecological purposes is a reminder that the technology itself is neutral. Just as drones can be used to take life, they can be used to help preserve it, too.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of drones.