Geography Geography of Drones
Thomas Birtchnell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0165


It is now possible to see remote control drones in parks as leisure toys or on the afternoon news seeing action in conflict zones. With adoption of the term propagating across the social sciences due to a growing awareness of the societal implications of automated aircraft, “drone” is colloquial for a range of technologies entering military and civil use in the late 20th century. An ancestral technology is the Kettering Bug, a US pilotless biplane torpedo launched in 1918. Drones are commonly rotary or fixed-wing aircraft able to automate some or all of their own flight paths through remote control, preprogramming, sensory awareness, machine learning, or artificial intelligence. While drones are chiefly aircraft able to navigate themselves with varying degrees of autonomy, the term is found in descriptions of automated and pilotless land and sea vehicles. The term is also appropriate in describing autonomous extraterrestrial vehicles with examples being the Mars rovers and other satellites. In its attribution to an unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV)—the acronym now containing a substitution for the antiquated term “unmanned”—the term drone has been in use since the 1940s arising with the innovation of combat aircraft that purportedly limited human casualties to adversarial combatants, although drones are attributed to cases of civilian death and “friendly fire.” The term drone began to see adoption in geographical literature due to the deployment of long-range and high altitude General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones during the Afghanistan-Pakistan wars from 2008 to 2009, also known as the “Drone War.” Scholarly concern was made manifest by allegations of injudicious strikes by combat drones on civilian targets including women and children. Notwithstanding this literature on military drones there is a growing interest in civil drones as they enter society for surveillance, recreation, sports reportage, journalism, aerial photography, and other practices. Social scientists with expertise in privacy and risk are cognizant of the possible incursions on human rights, private property, public safety and data security if drones became widely available to the citizenry. One strand of this literature is the use of drones in social science methods for data collection. There is an existing legacy of engagement with drones by physical geographers for aerial surveys involving photography, radar, and other sensory data collection techniques. A relative area of inquiry for transport geographers is in the mounting ubiquity of driverless cars and other transport vehicles classifiable as drones.

General Overviews

Spatially drones are notable for their ability to transcend, dispute, or otherwise problematize territory, and it is in this context where geographers find fruitful intellectual engagement (Gregory 2014). In military contexts drones represent a tangible vision of the impending dehumanization of warfare and the increasingly mechanical and distant nature of conflict. In civil use drones accentuate the envelopment of the commons with users accessing the hitherto inaccessible airspace above the built environment in order to collect images, video, or other data; scrutinize others; or infringe upon notions of spatial ownership (Birtchnell 2017). Drones, and the digital systems of which they are a part, are geographically significant. They allow people to extend their senses through space beyond their corporeal limits, reducing the distances they are able to see and hear, and allowing real-time actions across many miles. Given the abounding number of technical writings on drones, general overviews invariably contain inventories of technological breakthroughs and precedents. One important feature is that drones are not just singular technologies but must always be considered “systems”; however, recent technical appraisals attempt to distinguish between drones as remote control “sport” aircraft lacking decision-making capabilities and UAVs with “intelligence” (Austin 2010). An overarching reason for the delimitation of the term drone in technical sources to refer to inferior or consumer-grade products are the political nuances implicit in the media and in popular culture where UAVs and drones are interchangeable terms and often synonymous. Further unsettling efforts to distinguish between simple remote-control technologies and more advanced ones is the public adoption of the term drone by political elites for advanced military technologies (Rae 2014). Notable users include US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Despite the reluctance of experts to adopt the term drone in technical literature for complex and expensive military systems, no doubt due to its political connotations and associations with low-grade technologies, the term finds favor in geographical contexts. Recent extant themes in the human geographical literature specifically are on the politics of visibility, the air, and the ground (Klauser and Pedrozo 2015). The first refers to the surveillance and sensory power of drones across space and the data they gather purposefully or otherwise. The second involves the countermanding and contestation of aerial sovereignties through drone activities inspiring calls for an awareness of a volumetric sense of geopolitics beyond the planar. The third examines the residual aspects of strikes and the human toll.

  • Austin, Reg. Unmanned Aircraft Systems: UAVS Design, Development, and Deployment. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470664797

    This engineering book for laity geographers is a handbook on the state of the art in drone innovation. Although a clear distinction is made between the different models and terms, with UAV being the authorial choice for all but the most basic of types—that is, remote control octocopters—critical geographers will be able to assess the limitations and affordances of both military- and civil- grade technologies.

  • Birtchnell, Thomas. “Drones in Human Geography.” In Handbook on Geographies of Technology. Edited by Barney Warf, 231–241. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781785361166.00024

    With drones now entering the civil space this handbook entry offers a useful account of the many different domains drones are appearing in alongside their adoption in military theatres for clandestine and open operations. Non-military uses as well, such as delivering cargo, nature conservation and afforestation, and emergency management in post-disaster settings, are coming to define this technology’s role in society.

  • Gregory, Derek. “Drone Geographies.” Radical Philosophy 183 (2014): 7–19.

    A field-defining article laying out the case for a human geography of drones. Four seams of research inform the article: geographies within state bounds and the securitization of them; geographies across state boundaries through remote control killing, wherein operators are not physically present; geographies beyond formal state boundaries through automated assassination; and finally, the global hegemony drones afford to those who control, program, or contract their services.

  • Klauser, F., and S. Pedrozo. “Power and Space in the Drone Age: A Literature Review and Politico-Geographical Research Agenda.” Geographica Helvetica 70.4 (2015): 285–293.

    DOI: 10.5194/gh-70-285-2015

    Presenting a politico-geographical approach, the authors provide a thematic review of the literature including many geographic texts. The research agenda affords an awareness of three major research lacunae: the need for nonmilitary assessments of drones in the social sciences, the lack of empiricism in the existing academic work, and the neglect of drones outside English-speaking contexts. The article also proposes objectives relevant to geographical scholars.

  • Rae, James DeShaw. Analyzing the Drone Debates: Targeted Killing, Remote Warfare, and Military Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137381576

    As a Palgrave Pivot release, the book tends toward summariness due to its size; however, this makes it an efficacious touchstone for human geographers. The scope is the military proliferation of drones for surveillance and targeted killing, although many of the core points are relevant for the civil applications of drones given the role of the intelligence community in law enforcement and border control.

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