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The challenge

Ensuring that drones are used responsibly on Country

Across northern Australia, there has been a rapid uptake in the use of digital technologies such as drones. This comes as land managers, ecologists, conservation organisations and government agencies seek to monitor complex environmental management problems like weed invasions and feral animals over vast areas.

Drones offer exciting technical possibilities to meet some of these challenges head- on. For example, drones can enable the production of accurate and precise wildlife monitoring data, and the visualisation of hard-to-reach or inaccessible locations. Drones also allow local people to collect data about their Country themselves instead of relying on outside experts. Indigenous groups are therefore exploring ways to use drones to make faster decisions about emerging and escalating threats to their Country.

Despite the impressive uptake of drones by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers, there has been limited work done to make sure drones can be introduced responsibly. This includes ensuring the data they collect is negotiated with Indigenous people on their Country for their benefit. There have also been significant concerns raised about the use of drones, including that they can disrupt the ways in which sacred sites and knowledge are managed through complex rules for responsibility based on kinship, seniority and gender.

Further, drones are associated with data governance risks, challenges with surveillance, and can cause concern if the way they operate, are regulated and the purpose for their use is not clearly understood by local people.

Because of the coupled risks and opportunities of deploying drones on Country, our researchers started thinking through what it would take to ensure drones are used responsibly. That is, how could we design and use digital technologies from an ethical position that prioritises Indigenous perspectives and knowledge practices?

This raised profound questions around how to mitigate some of the tensions for innovating on Country that’s been managed according to kinship responsibilities for tens of thousands of years.

Indigenous stewardship of Country is fundamentally about having the right people on Country making decisions about particular places. These grounded, place-based practices create real tension when paired with remotely-operated technologies like drones.

Our response

Indigenous-led protocols for the use of drones on Country

A National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Northern Australia Hub project brought together a team of scientists from CSIRO, Charles Darwin University, the University of Western Australia, Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers, to work at Jarrangbarnmi in southern Kakadu National Park to make sure the introduction of drones to Jawoyn Country was ethical.

This process included practicing Indigenous-led responsible innovation on the ground. Jarrangbarnmi is a place in Jawoyn Country where the movement and resting places of creation ancestors means there are many sacred sites, including sites that can be visited by only men or women. The area, which is known as Koolpin Gorge to many, is also a significant tourist destination known for its secluded gorge, rock pools, waterfalls, and its significant diversity of rare and endemic species.

Jawoyn Traditional Owners and Kakadu Rangers work together to care for Jarrangbarnmi as it is in the jointly managed World Heritage national park.

Jarrangbarnmi workshop

The team camped at Jarrangbarnmi for a two-day workshop led by Traditional Owners, who were employed as senior authorities and co-researchers. During the workshop, Traditional Owners shared their concerns with drones, including that:

  • pilots might see restricted sacred sites, including gendered sites,
  • sensitive information might be recorded in an open-access database; or 
  • Traditional Owners might be removed from decision-making processes on Country.

The researchers discussed the purpose of using drones, which would be used to survey an area to see environmental change before and after a management intervention.

Jermaine Douglas and Henry Ford flying the drone at Jarrangbarnmi.

They demonstrated how they would map a flight survey into the drone control program and that would be the only area flown over.

The legal regulations for drones and how they must stay in line of sight and not be flown over a certain height were also shared.

They also spent time making sure everyone understood how drones work, with participants taking turns to fly the drone or watch it be flown.

Workshop outcomes

Once the researchers had Traditional Owner consent to use drones at Jarrangbarnmi, they then co-designed rules for their use on Country. This mandated:

  • Traditional Owners to be on Country when drones are used,
  • Traditional Owners to map the area the drone can fly to ensure knowledge and sites are protected and access rules are respected; and
  • young Indigenous people to drive the technology so that they learn and benefit from the process.

These rules for technology use on Country and the ensuing protocols that emerged ensured that the introduction of new technologies to Country was:

  • transparent
  • purpose oriented
  • responsive to context
  • provided benefit
  • centred the user in the design.

These are all important tenets of RI.

The results

Building a shared responsibility for drone technology

Building a shared responsibility for innovation ensured that the researchers’ use of drones and the data they collected responded to the concerns raised by Traditional Owners about drone use and the need for privacy, data ownership and protection.

Traditional Owners were supported to be on Country, working in research and innovation with their families, and are now leading the co-design of an on-Country training program to provide accessibility and benefit from digital technologies.

Indigenous-led technological innovation is leading to local benefits, improved access to digital innovation, and producing useful and useable data.

The co-authors and research team at Jarrangbarnmi.

This project demonstrates that in order to be ethical in the use of digital technologies on Country, researchers need to share responsibility for this innovation.

We have achieved this through:

  • the project being led by Indigenous governance practices.
  • co-developing rules for technology use on Country to ensure they were being used responsibly and for a purpose; and
  • ensuring ongoing benefits for local people and for the environment through a training program.

The protocols, documented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, provide a way to ensure Indigenous peoples are guiding and authorising the introduction of new technologies like drones, and that these technologies are being used to produce new knowledge to adaptively co-manage their Country.

This work will be useful for anyone wanting to be responsible and ethical in their use of drones and other technologies, which are now widely used in the environment sector on Indigenous-owned and managed Country.

It also provides a clear and tangible example of respecting Indigenous data sovereignty rights, which is an area of active research in the global community. More information about CSIRO’s work in caring for Indigenous data can be found on our website.

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