Do-It-Yourself aerial photography

Possible Objectives

  • Collecting evidence of deforestation or forest degradation
  • Capturing evidence of companies’ wrongdoing in how they use land
  • Supporting communities by presenting and providing knowledge
  • Providing concrete evidence to governments to encourage them to recognise indigenous lands

This introduction to DIY aerial photography is part of a Primer for using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. It is designed as a starting point for organisations and activists interested in adding technology to improve their advocacy work, and is the product of a partnership between Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room.

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What is it

  • Aerial photography can be produced by drones (flying vehicles without a human pilot), balloons or kites attached to a digital camera that takes pictures throughout the flight.
  • Computer software combines (or ‘stitches’) these photos into maps or 3D models, which can be used for purposes including monitoring wildlife, recording land claims and documenting climate change impacts.

How it can help

High-resolution satellite maps can be expensive, out-of-date or difficult to access (see Satellite Mapping). Creating aerial maps yourself gives you detailed map data for the exact area you want, in real time. It also allows you to fly over the same area regularly – giving you evidence of change over time.


If you have a low budget and only want to cover a small area, kites and balloons are the cheapest and easiest option (see Costs, below). They can be constructed from simple materials or pre-prepared kits (1) (2) . If tree cover restricts where you can fly balloons and kites, you will need to spend more on a drone. There are two main types: a drone with four or more multiple rotors (easier to fly, but can only fly for a maximum of 20-30 minutes), or a remote-controlled ‘fixed-wing’ plane (these can fly for up to 60 minutes – easier to fix but harder to land). You will also need a simple digital camera, software to plan flight paths, fly the drone, and edit photos.

Want more detail? Forest Compass’s guide and New America Foundation and Open Technology Institute’s primer on drones are the best places to go.


While the materials needed to create and build a drone, balloon or kite are cheaper than ever before, use them effectively will take time, basic practical skills and the patience to learn new software. Allocate staff time to training, technical adjustments, managing data and communicating with communities where you will be flying. A basic kite able to carry a small camera can cost as little as USD 70, and you can buy a balloon kit for around USD 200. Kits are available that allow drones to be created for around USD 1,000-USD 2,000. Alternatively, you can buy simple ready-to-use drones for prices starting from USD500. ConservationDrones also collects unused drones and donates them to rainforest-related groups. Free, open source autopilot and map creation software is available, and the ConservationDrones, DIYDrones and the Humanitarian UAV network can offer (often free) advice and support.

Risks and challenges

Drones and DIY aerial photography are new technologies, and best practices and legal regulations are still being developed. The Humanitarian UAV network’s code of conduct is an excellent document to follow, and see also this list of regulations on flying drones in different countries.

Involve local communities wherever possible, involving them in conducting the mapping themselves. Ensure that they understand exactly what data is being collected and how it will be used. Remove any information that identifies individuals, and share the information you have collected with the community being mapped afterwards. Some countries are starting to introduce legal restrictions on who can fly a drone and where. Check whether it is legal before you start.

Case studies

Building and flying a drone in collaboration with the local community

In 2014, members of the Wapichan community in Guyana and the organization Digital Democracy built a fixed-wing drone using a kit, a GoPro camera (available from around $100) and free open-source software. The drone was then used to create a detailed 3D model of Sholinab, a local village.

How did it help?

  • The Wapichan monitoring team had no previous engineering experience but were able to build the drone using materials from the local area, making the drone a more familiar object that they had built together.
  • Team members first learned to fly the drone without an autopilot. Although there were difficulties in landing at first, it helped them to gain confidence in how the drone worked.
  • The group identified several possible uses for the drone in future, including monitoring deforestation over time, mapping villages to allocate the management of resources, and documenting illegal logging.

Exposing illegal logging using a drone

In 2014, ConservationDrones and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) used a drone to take aerial photographs of part of the Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia. The organisation flew over the same area twice in two months, producing clear photographic evidence that illegal logging had taken place.

How did it help?

  • Without aerial photography, the logging might not have have been discovered: the loggers had hidden their activities at ground level by leaving a strip of trees around the logged area.
  • ConservationDrones and SOCP gave the evidence to park officials, who were able to stop logging activities in that area.

Further resources

  • Conservation Drones’ site includes a guide to building and flying drones, as well as examples of how they have been used in conservation work
  • DIY Drones has an introductory guide to UAVs
  • Public Laboratory provides guides and support on building kites, balloons and sensors for mapping
  • The Humanitarian UAV network (UAViators) has a range of useful information and a survey of laws affecting drone flights in countries around the world
  • Geojournalism’s guide to balloon mapping
  • NetHope’s Solutions Center has webinars and resources on using drones


This site was created by The Engine Room and Rainforest Foundation Norway as an introduction to using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. Download the whole primer here. It was first published in July 2016. Last updated in July 2016.

Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) is one of the world’s leading organisations in the field of rights-based rainforest protection. Its mission is to support indigenous peoples and traditional populations of the world’s rainforests in their efforts to protect their environment and fullfil their rights by assisting them in:

  • Securing and controlling the natural resources necessary for their long-term well-being and managing these resources in ways which do not harm their environment, violate their culture or compromise their future;
  • and developing the means to protect their individual and collective rights and to obtain, shape, and control basic services from the state.

RFN collaborates closely with more than 70 local and national environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations in 11 countries in the Amazon region, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.


The Engine Room is an international organisation that helps activists, social change organisations, and change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact. The Engine Room provides direct, project-level support for social change organisations; brings together communities to coordinate emerging ideas and collect practitioners; and documents and publishes findings to help anyone in the sector make better decisions about using data and technology.

Tom Walker and Tin Geber researched and wrote the main narrative, while Ruth Miller led work on the design and visuals creation. Vemund Olsen and Christopher Wilson provided invaluable input and editing support. The site sourcecode is available on Github. Comments or questions? Contact or

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