“To be honest, I was kind of scared,” Rhianna Lakin admits over lunch at a little Mexican restaurant near her work “I went far away and took my drone up high…”
Rhianna’s telling me about the time she came across illegal gold mining in a small village on the island of Lombok in Indonesia and filmed it–using her drone to get a bird’s eye view of the hazardous mining practices the poor local villagers were subjected to, which would otherwise have stayed hidden–an environmental crusader with an unlikely weapon which she has utilized from Sumatra to Standing Rock.
Five years ago, when a friend showed Rhianna drone footage from the Pacific Northwest, she knew immediately that she was going to learn how to fly one and use it, “to save the world.”
“My brain started going crazy,” she says–over the possibilities this new technology could open up for environmental and humanitarian activism. She thought of the time she was in Indonesia during a flash flood due to deforestation that killed half the population of a village. If she had had a drone, she could have used it to see where the jungle was being cleared to plant palms for oil, and spot the danger the logging posed to the vulnerable village.
She vowed to return to Indonesia with a drone, and she did, documenting not only the illegal gold mine, but, when a volcano erupted spectacularly nearby, sending her drone up to help locals, “see if their villages were still intact or had been burnt from lava.”
From words to photos to videos, activists have historically used whatever they can to document and expose atrocities intentionally hidden from the public view. Drone technology gives them another tool in this rapidly evolving fight: the ability to get up high and see what’s going on behind barbed wire fences or at the end of private roads. Rhianna Lakin, a native Oregonian and single mother of two, is on the forefront of this battle. Not surprisingly, conservationists and environmental activists like Rhianna aren’t the only ones who recognize the potential drones pose; big industry and the legislators beholden to it are scrambling to pass laws to restrict drone use, and even arresting and charging drone pilots, part of a larger movement by law enforcement to silence environmental documentation and reporting, and one that only threatens to get worse under a Trump administration.
In 2012 an amateur drone pilot near Dallas Texas spotted blood flowing from a meatpacking plant into an adjacent river and informed the EPA, prompting an investigation–one of the first instances of drone technology being used to alert the public to pollution. Since several states have what are termed, “Ag Gag” laws, which make it illegal to take photos or videos at, or even near, factory farming operations, it quickly became apparent that drones could be crucial in exposing practices that the public sees as abhorrent, and that big agriculture and industry fight to keep secret.
While environmentalists see drones as an important tool, industry sees them as a threat. As “The Goods” a publication of the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers noted in November 2016, “Drones are becoming a serious privacy and security issue for utilities and manufacturers… facilities may need to re-evaluate the security of the airspace above their facilities to protect against unwanted environmental surveillance, or worse, by drones in the future.” In the last few years, many states, including Oregon, have passed laws that make it a violation to operate a drone over various types of energy and manufacturing facilities.
Currently this is a murky legal area. As Rhianna Lakin sees it, “The air doesn’t belong to the states,” however, “It is a risk to do drone activism… there is not a clear, defined environment.” This became apparent to her during her time at Standing Rock, where she went, “Not necessarily to drone, but to provide support to drone pilots,” and where both the police and the pipeline company shot drones down, and a no fly zone was briefly enforced. Standing Rock was, “sad, scary, educational, and spiritual,” Rhianna says. She was there on November 20th and, “in the evening they used water cannons and flash grenades; I was running up and down, charging batteries, helping drone pilots and drones got shot at… I wondered what have we come to?”
But the drones flying high above Standing Rock helped the wider world see– via live stream–what we had come to, another critical way in which drones can help activists: by documenting what is truly occurring on the ground. “People felt safer with drones in the air,” Rhianna continues, “capturing the truth from an angle that showed clearly what was happening.” The aerial footage from the movement is now evidence in a contentious court battle surrounding the six hundred plus water protectors who have been charged–with the prosecution balking at turning hours of video over to the defense.
Since Standing Rock, Rhianna has also felt a change in the way the public views drones. “The entire time I’ve been in the industry I’ve never seen such positivity.” The video footage helped people see drones not as tools that could be used to spy on them, but as a way to fight for truth and justice. This will be an important point as industry pushes for more regulations, but might exploit privacy concerns to do so. As “The Goods” noted about California drone laws, “Although this legislation was intended to protect against the use of drones by paparazzi, it could provide protection against unwanted environmental surveillance.”
I ask Rhianna what’s next, both for her, and for the future of droning, considering potential legal battles and legislation. “It’s hard to predict,” she replies about the rapidly evolving technology, “but here’s what I know: they don’t want us to be able to expose their agendas or human wrongs… I don’t feel super comfortable about the future… but when bills come up people can rally and keyboard warriors can make calls! And as we’ve seen in different realms of activism sometimes laws don’t stop those with the passion to protect the environment, people, and animals.”
As for Rhianna, I don’t see anyone stopping her from continuing to use her skills as a drone pilot to keep on saving the world, and in the short term she’s keeping it local. She’s interested in droning Elliot State Forest and researching the true history of the Columbia River Gorge and Celilo Falls, and she is planning on getting involved in the Jordon Cove pipeline proposal which will be having public open houses in several Oregon cities at the end of the month.
She’s also excited to see drone technology spread, and wants to help other groups such as the Women’s Indigenous Media gain access to drones, and the skills to use them. While she was at Standing Rock she watched two women learn to pilot and she sees drones spreading to other pipeline battles such as the Trans Pecos in Texas. “For activists, drones can be one of your greatest tools to fight environmental injustice in a lot of different ways,” she says as our plates are being cleared away, “they can be used to hold companies and people accountable and move the public to stand up with footage.”
Watching such footage–being taken high above the earth by pilots such as Rhianna Lakin–who is so full of hope over the potential for drones to protect the planet and is helping to spread that hope worldwide, it is hard not to imagine thousands of activists sending their drones up on a wave of enthusiasm for discovering and documenting the truth; and although industry might push for laws to limit and restrict drones, it would be impossible to bring them all down.
Written by: Kathryn Lipari