How New Tech in the Air Impacts Politics on the Ground

Kroc School Professor Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick’s research focuses on politics, culture, technology and social change broadly. For years, he has been taking a close look at how social movements use technology, and his research led him to the fascinating and rapidly changing world of drones. Who uses them, and for what purpose? How does new technology in the air impact politics on the ground?

His latest book, The Good Drone: How Social Movements Democratize Surveillance” (MIT Press), dives into those questions. It analyzes the ways small-scale drones — as well as satellites, kites and balloons — have been adopted by scientists, advocacy groups and journalists to help advance knowledge, shape public opinion and reframe debates.

"After examining thousands of use cases, what struck me was how often people were using this technology for good. Activists, researchers and nonprofits all over the world are using drones to help us see the world in new ways." — Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, PhD

The topic is a timely one as regulators actively discuss how to integrate drones into national airspace. Using a variety of anecdotes and careful research, Professor Choi-Fitzpatrick argues that drones can ultimately benefit society, so long as the public continues to have access to them.

Kroc School Student Support Leads to Foundational Drone Research

The thousands of use cases Professor Choi-Fitazpatrick refers to (above) were analyzed as part of the foundational 2016 report, "Up in the Air", which he wrote with the support of his MA in Peace and Justice students. Specifically, they explored drone use cases over a six-year period (2009-2015), poring through over 15,000 news items to get answers. The report revealed that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, has skyrocketed in recent years. While most attention has gone to military use, commercial drones have gained widespread popularity, with uses ranging from leisure activities by hobbyists to humanitarian aid and disaster relief support by nongovernmental organizations and activist groups.

Key Findings

The report "Up in the Air" by Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, PhD, and his MA students in peace and justice studies includes analysis to understand civilian drone use worldwide and explores regulatory responses. Some key findings from the report include:

  • 2012 was a breakout period that saw the non-military use of drones overtake military use.
  • Regulations in the U.S. are long overdue.

  • Legislation is sparse and uneven, but growing.

The report concludes that the United States has the most reported drone usage. It also highlights the inconsistent nature of drone legislation, and the "catch-up" process that legislators have to engage in to deal with rapidly increasing drone use.

Download the full report (PDF)

Read More From Professor Choi-Fitzpatrick

Professor Choi-Fitzpatrick remains an active, expert contributor on the subject of social movements. Here are just a few of his recent contributions: