Increasing proliferation of drones garners mixed reactions from locals

This is the first part of a six-part series based on a Navanti survey about the perceptions and use of drones in Africa and the Middle East. In our next installments, we will dig deeper into the dynamics of each of five regions surveyed.

As drones become more available across the world, advances in technology are growing the range of their application, from humanitarian aid to Amazon deliveries.

In certain areas of conflict, however, locals have greeted the arrival of these unmanned aerial vehicles with resentment as they increasingly associate them a state of perpetual war and surveillance, according to a recent Navanti survey.

In an informal April 2017 survey, as part of a series to be published over six weeks, Navanti asked its local researchers based in 17 different locations throughout Nigeria, Cameroon, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya about their uses for and perceptions of drones in their areas.

Our goal was to understand how prevalent and accessible the technology is becoming, as well as how locals view the technology (e.g., as a humanitarian or commercial tool, as an instrument of national security, or other uses).

Survey respondents attested to a proliferation of UAVs across almost all areas for mostly reconnaissance, airstrikes or propaganda purposes.

Survey respondents attested to a proliferation of UAVs across almost all areas for mostly reconnaissance, airstrikes or propaganda purposes.

While 77 percent of respondents said they had seen a UAV flying in their area, in Syria and Yemen, respondents said they saw UAVs either “always” or “all the time.” Though respondents generally agreed that UAVs are mostly used in their areas for airstrikes or collecting information pertaining to military action, some gave examples of militant groups using drones to make propaganda videos of their rallies. Respondents in areas with active violent extremist organizations said groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS were using smaller drones for intelligence, but noted that there was no indication larger drones had been used to perform airstrikes. Other, less common purposes of flying UAVs mentioned by respondents included for journalistic, artistic, or humanitarian purposes.

Respondents said the use of drones, especially the smaller commercial drones, had increased in their areas, spreading to Islamist and rebel groups as well as foreign governments

Though responses varied by region, a majority of survey respondents living in conflict zones had negative impressions of UAVs, as the presence of UAVs is associated with impending airstrikes and has coincided with the beginning of hostilities in their areas. Different than traditional forms of warfare or intelligence-gathering, respondents often perceived UAVs as being a constant surveilling presence, even when they were not seen or heard.

Respondents often asserted that this unique aspect of drones has had a negative psychological impact.

In Syria, Yemen, and Libya, respondents described the stress and fear induced by the UAVs’ buzzing sounds when overhead, signaling an imminent airstrike nearby.

Despite the possibility of a decrease in UAV activity after a cessation of hostilities, respondents seemed to view UAV presence as a long-term phenomenon.

This perception could be attributed to the inevitable result of the increasing proliferation of UAVs as well as the facility with which UAVs can achieve certain security objectives. Researchers surveyed noted that local governments could continue using drones after hostilities end to monitor any increases in rebel activity and maintain control over territory, especially in larger rural areas. Some respondents accepted the use of drones as an inevitable development, adding that they hoped the drones would only be used against groups they of which they disapproved.

While respondents in Syria, Libya, and Yemen reported the least favorable perceptions of drones, respondents in East Africa and the Lake Chad Basin saw drones as a useful tool for non-military purposes.

In East Africa, half of respondents said drones are mainly used in their areas for filming journalistic video clips or promotional material.

Half of the Lake Chad respondents said UAVs are used in their areas for humanitarian or journalistic purposes, while the other half said drones were crucial for controlling Boko Haram in large rural swaths of land. Several respondents in other regions also noted they would prefer to see UAVs be used for non-military purposes in their areas.

Next in our series, we will delve deeper into the case of North Africa, shedding light on the use of drones and perceptions about their role.

About Navanti

Navanti researches socio-economic and political risk trends using a combination of in-house subject matter experts and hyper-local atmospherics reporting from local researchers in predominantly high-conflict zones across Africa, the Middle East, and Eurasia.