Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), used in humanitarian response are smaller systems or micro-UAVs that weigh just a few kilograms. Drones are controlled remotely and use advanced technologies — including global positioning system, thermal imaging and live video streaming — for better disaster assessment.
The World Food Program’s UAVs were designed and built at the University of Torino “way back” in 2007. But they’ve been grounded until this year due to lack of legislation in Italy. In June 2014, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) purchased a small quadcopter for use in humanitarian response and advocacy. And more recently, they were flown in response to the massive flooding in the Balkans and after the earthquake in China. The United Nations (UN) released official policy brief on humanitarian UAVs about its safe and responsible use. Many U.N. groups are actively exploring the use of UAVs for disaster response.
Mobile phones, orbiting satellites and humanitarian UAVs each generate vast volumes of data during major disasters. The view from above is key for humanitarian response, which explains why satellite imagery has played a pivotal role in relief operations for almost two decades now. But satellites do present a number of limitations including cost, data sharing restrictions, cloud cover, and the time needed to acquire images.
In contrast, UAVs can capture aerial imagery at a far higher resolution, more quickly and at much lower cost. And unlike satellites, members of the public can actually own UAVs. This means that disaster-affected communities can launch their own UAVs in response to a crisis. This grassroots approach is important for community resilience and disaster response. Groups like SkyEye in the Philippines and CartONG in Haiti are actively training local communities to operate their own UAVs for disaster-preparedness purposes.
UAViators, are strong proponents of community-centered approaches to humanitarian UAVs. To be sure, community engagement is key when it comes to the ethical and responsible use of UAVs for disaster response, and sharing aerial imagery with local stakeholders is very important.
Of course, like social media, there are obviously risks in using UAVs for disaster response. But this is precisely why UAViators has drafted the checklist, to provide guidance on do’s and don’ts. Risks cannot be eliminated, but one way they can be better managed is through education and awareness raising.
So the question is no longer if, but rather how. How do we ensure that these promising technologies continue to have positive impact in humanitarian settings? How do we ensure that local communities have a say in how UAVs are used? In addition to these questions, there are growing concerns around safety, privacy, regulation and ethics that need to be tackled earlier rather than later. One way to address these challenges is by mobilizing a community of practice that can pro-actively discuss these issues.