GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The call came after 8 in the evening, from peacekeepers posted in a remote corner of the country’s restive east. The troops sensed suspicious movement nearby. Venturing out into the forest at that hour was far too risky. Would ground control send a drone to have a look?
From here, a remotely piloted aircraft set off, its owl eyes designed to peer through the darkness and send back a live picture of what was happening on the ground. In a windowless trailer at the airport here in Goma, pilots steered it past a row of volcanoes toward the jungle.
In an age of ubiquitous surveillance, even rebels in the bush can expect to be tracked, as United Nations troops cautiously deploy a tool familiar to most modern militaries around the world: the drone.
The United Nations insists on calling the aircraft unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles, the term drone having acquired a bad reputation because of the armed versions that American forces use against targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. United Nations officials insist that they do not plan to use drones to kill anyone, only to get a picture of trouble and grief on the ground, to protect civilians and their own troops.
“We have a mandate here to neutralize armed groups — you can’t do it without intelligence,” said Martin Kobler, who leads the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“They have also a psychological effect,” he added. “Everyone knows they are flying.”
More and more, drones are flying over some of the toughest peacekeeping missions in the world, improving the United Nations’ intelligence-gathering capability, but also raising new issues about what to do with so much important data.
Dutch troops are using drones to gather intelligence on the armed Islamist insurgents operating in the deserts of Mali. Swedish troops are expected to take some drones along when they are sent to Timbuktu, Mali, this year.
The United Nations has received a nod from the government of Mali to use drones more broadly in its peacekeeping mission there. Likewise from the government of the Central African Republic. The United Nations has been rebuffed in its efforts to put them to use in South Sudan, where the government, facing a civil war, has flatly denied permission.
Never before have foreign troops been able to collect so much fine-grained information about people and places of interest: who sells guns to whom, where illegal gold mines operate, the precise location of a rebel base. All of it, United Nations officials say, is classified and available only at the discretion of its lawyers.
It remains to be tested whether and how the information will be shared with, for instance, a host government, or a sanctions committee impaneled by the United Nations Security Council, or even a war crimes tribunal.
On the Security Council, which authorizes peacekeeping missions, Russia and China favor proceeding slowly as an expert panel studies the drones’ legal implications, while the United States and Britain have cited their usefulness. Human Rights Watch called for greater transparency and requested that any information picked up by peacekeepers about atrocities against civilians — the burning of villages, for instance — be shared with the United Nations’ human rights monitors.
Congo is the first testing ground for drones in peacekeeping. The experience here offers a glimpse into both the allure and the limitations of the new technology, in what is one of the most stubborn conflicts facing the United Nations. Its peacekeepers are charged with routing the various rebel groups that have spent 20 years killing and raping people, as well as plundering the country’s rich mineral resources, often with the help of the armies of neighboring countries.
Here in Goma, United Nations officials say that remotely piloted aircraft can be more useful than helicopters for surveillance because drones can fly low without being easily seen or heard, and they can remain over an area gathering information for hours at a time. A helicopter crew that tried to do the same would risk being shot down.
“With U.A.V.s, you do it quietly, discreetly, you do it in the middle of the night,” said a United Nations military officer who is part of the drones team, referring to unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles, the other name for unarmed drones.
The limits, though, are already obvious. The five drones the United Nations has for this mission, leased from an Italian company called Selex, have a flying range of about 125 miles, about 200 kilometers, from the ground control station here in Goma, so they can reach only a small part of even the most active conflict zone in a very large country. Discussions are underway to establish a second control station north of here, closer to an active operation against a rebel group near the Ugandan border, said Mr. Kobler, leader of the United Nations Mission in Congo.
The drones also face a tough opponent in Mother Nature. When the World Food Program wanted the drones to check whether a certain road was passable for aid convoys, the jungle canopy there proved to be so thick that the drones’ cameras could not get a good enough picture of the road from above.
Even the peacekeepers who sensed the suspicious movement around their post in the forest north of here did not ultimately get much help. A fierce thunderstorm occurred shortly after takeoff, and the pilots steered the drone back to Goma before it could be battered.
Selex, which is part of Finmeccanica, a giant Italian aerospace and industrial conglomerate, supplies the United Nations with private contractors to fly the drones, operate their cameras and help analyze the pictures they take. The Congo peacekeeping mission expects to spend up to $15 million a year on the drones, officials said, noting that it is a tiny portion of the mission’s $1.46 billion annual budget.
In his office here in a trailer near Lake Kivu, the force commander, Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, said the images from the drone cameras had already helped him get a better idea of where guerrillas operate and what they are up to.
They can help him discern whether a particular village is just a village, with clothes laid to dry in the sun, or whether it is also a shelter for a militia, where, say, a sentry post is erected each night in the banana grove, or where trucks snake along the red earth roads ferrying coltan, a mineral used in the production of cellphones and one of the many natural resources that fuel Congo’s wars.
One United Nations official recalled an episode this spring in which peacekeepers came under fire from a rebel group that had taken position on a forested hilltop. The peacekeepers had a good idea of where the rebels were shooting from, but they had no idea whether there were civilians around. Sending a reconnaissance helicopter meant risking having it shot down by rebels armed with heavy weapons.
So a drone was sent from Goma. It quietly circled over the ridge line, flashing video images to the screens in the control room. The drone confirmed the coordinates of the gunmen. More important, it showed that there were no civilians nearby. An attack helicopter was sent immediately. After a couple of strikes, the rebel base was finished, the official recalled.
The drones flying from Goma are nearly 20 feet long, or six meters, somewhat smaller than the familiar American Predator armed drone. The United Nations drones have cameras that can capture still pictures and video day or night, and infrared sensors that can pick up hot spots, which around here could be a burned village or a thermal vent from a volcano.
The drone business has added to the weirdness of this town.
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found work here as privately contracted drone experts. A.T.M.s dispense crisp American currency. Local bars hold special evenings to court foreigners. The nights are swathed in darkness for anyone without a generator. There are only two and a half paved roads in the entire city.
Goma is calmer now than it was a year ago, when a rebel army called M23 had the run of the place. The countryside just outside remains a place of terror, though, and reports of rapes and killings still pour in. Nearly a million civilians are displaced across North Kivu Province, afraid to return home.
Drones or no drones, Congolese say they are still waiting for the United Nations to deliver results. “If the presence of these drones were associated with action on the ground, we would say these drones are useful,” said Justine Masika, a women’s rights advocate who works with rape survivors. “What we need now is peace.”