Drones in Humanitarian Crises: Between Useful Tool and Do No Harm

Timo Lüge and Denise Soesilo (FSD)     Sept 2016

Few technologies have undergone as radical a change as drones. Where five years ago, drones were mainly seen as an instrument of war, today they are far more likely to be flown by a wedding photographer than an airman. Earlier this year, the Consumer Technology Association estimated that globally 9.4 million civilian drones will be sold in 2016.

Increased reliability, ease of use and much lower prices have also made drones a viable technology for humanitarian responders. In addition, drones are “sexy” and rarely a week goes by without a new idea for how drones can revolutionize humanitarian aid: from drones that promise to detonate landmines to edible drones.

However, this hardware centric view often neglects drawing on humanitarian best practice, respecting legal frameworks, or considering ethical aspects of humanitarian innovation.

As part of the EU-ECHO funded research initiative “Drones in Humanitarian Action”, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), CartONG and the Zoi Environment Network are looking at how drones can have a real impact in humanitarian crises and what humanitarian organizations should consider before using them.

  • Don’t break the law: Many countries require formal authorization for drone flights, particularly when a drone is flown beyond the line of sight. Professional humanitarian organizations need to know what the national rules are and respect them. An overview of known drone regulations can be found on FSD’s Wiki.
  • Involve the community: In addition to getting approval from the authorities, it is essential to get permission from the communities that a drone is flying over. The comparatively short range of most civilian drones means that pilots have to be within the area they want to monitor anyhow, and while most communities feel very positively about the flying gadgets, not informing a community could easily expose an NGO to suspicions of spying on the community. Where possible, the outputs of drone flights - such as maps - should always be shared with the communities.
  • Do no harm: This applies both to the physical drones themselves and the use of data. In 2014 for example, a UN drone crashed in a field in the Democratic Republic of Congo and curious neighbours trampled the harvest when looking at the wreck. Yet, the UN did not reimburse the 55-year-old widow who relied on her crops for herself and her family. Harm can also be less tangible: Particularly in conflict environments, humanitarian organizations should evaluate closely whether data collected by drones could be used against the organization or the people affected by the conflict. Can the data be used to identify specific ethnic groups? Is it necessary to capture images at the highest possible resolution? Does it put my organization at risk if I accidentally take photos of military vehicles? These are just some of the questions that organizations should ask before deploying drones.
  • Know what to do with the data: The challenges of using drones have shifted from knowing how to fly them, to knowing how to process the data. Humanitarian organizations need to have access to strong information management capacity - either in-house or through a partner - to turn drone data into actionable knowledge.

Drones in Humanitarian Action found that drones have the biggest positive impacts when used within a comparatively small area and with a clear goal in mind. The benefits are most evident in connection with activities that required detailed maps: when planning camps for refugees or IDPs for example, drones can help identify areas that might flood during the next rainy season. In Bosnia Herzegovina, drones were successfully used to map at-risk areas after landslides displaced mine fields. Drones are also increasingly used to communicate the impact crises: whether in the Philippines, Haiti or Syria - drone footage is a new tool to advocate for funds or political support.

Unfortunately, even consumer drones can weaponized: In Iraq, ISIS has been using drones for reconnaissance and lately even to deliver bombs. While these are still isolated cases, it shows how important it is for communities to know what is flying over their heads.

One thing is clear: drones will become an increasingly common sight in humanitarian crises. Like all other technologies they are not a solution in itself, but can augment and improve the skills of humanitarian professionals. It is up to these professionals to define guidelines under which circumstances their use is ethical and useful to assist survivors of natural disasters and conflicts. The UAV Code of Conduct is a very important step into the right direction, however at the moment it is only preaching to the converted. In order to mainstream it, adherence to a Code of Conduct needs to become a donor requirement and also involve the private sector.