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The use of drones in the humanitarian sector

In the last years, the use of drones has increased dramatically due to prices drop and technological progress that make the use of drones easier.  Therefore, the use of them has been studied and applied in the humanitarian sector in order to facilitate and accelerate the response to humanitarian crises. The guide “Drones in Humanitarian Sector” made by the Swiss Foundations for Mine Action (FSD) and its partners (CartOng, Zoi Environment Network and UAViators)  provide us with interesting and latest insights to understand how drones can actually have a positive impact on the humanitarian action with a focus on natural disasters.

By Federico Rivara

According to a survey conducted among humanitarian workers, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka drones) application would be interesting in five main sectors: 

  • mapping services
  • delivering light items in remote areas
  • damages assessment practices
  • monitoring changes
  • increasing situational awareness

For all of them, case studies reported by several actors are presented in order to tell readers how humanitarians can use drones and which knowledge is required.Today, most of the humanitarian organisation which use drones establish partnerships with services providers that have sufficient capacity for humanitarian actions, technological skills and field capacity for drones deployment.

Mapping

With respect to mapping, drones can play a better role than traditional GPS\GIS services due to the fact that they can work in particular weather conditions (for instance, clouds can reduce the use of satellites) but also provide live information about fast-changing environments. On the other side, drones often need more flights to carry a data collection – especially for large areas –  given their low battery levels. Moving to the field, UAVs made possible the mapping of Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 to prepare the assessment of densely populated slums by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) where information provided by drones could be more precise than those given by GPS. Obviously, alternatives are complementary rather than opposite and the use of one or other tools depends on the context and the plan.

drone - gps

Final recommendations about mapping refer to emergency relief. In fact, today drones are not so often used because the preparation can take too much time if there are not organisation or external services providers already close to the area affected with enough deployed drones. Moreover, people and policy-makers still look at drones suspiciously given the military connotation they have. However, the fact that many civilians are getting more familiar with this technology can change the perception on them.

Cargo Delivery

Often, the delivery of basic needs after a crisis is difficult due to the poor infrastructures conditions and other challenges. Therefore, UAVs can play an important role. The technological progress in this field is not developed that much to provide assistance on large scale, in large areas and providing massive help. However, the supply of medical and health items is already possible and several organisations have already used drones to deliver them. Examples come from all over the worlds and regard the delivery of vaccines, purified water bottles and contraceptives but also the collection of Tuberculosis sputum samples.

Actors that work on it (NGOs, universities, start-ups, logistics companies and so on) can either land the UAV on the field or parachute the items. It often depends on the regulation that the interested country has. A database, Global Drone Regulations Database that gives updates of almost all of the countries of the world has been launched by UAViators and supported by the FSD,  The New America Foundation and the  Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU. Everyone can register and provide updates on drone laws of any country.

Several aspects need to advance if cargo delivery by means of drones will become usual. Besides the regulations, all the actors involved need to communicate more to understand each other area of expertise. Technological progress will also reduce the costs to use UAVs and humanitarian organisations would be more willing to use these services either developing internal capacity or collaborating with external providers. Training and staffing in order to deploy drones in conflict zones are needed to guarantee collaboration and safety of the operations. Finally, an increase in the use of them can reduce people’s risk as they should not deliver aid with helicopters and planes. A final recommendation that the guide gives states that more field tests are needed to statistically obtain information about cargo drones efficiency.

Other Applications

drones search and rescueThe last section of the guide refers to the use of drones for Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster and on the monitoring and real-time information provision. While SAR actions can be already supported by means of drones, monitoring and real-time information provision is still not very common given the fact that mid to large-sized UAVs and complicated transmission technology would be required to get information on large areas. However, drones have been used to assess the damages occurred after the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. So, operators could understand which materials were needed to repair the hospital without putting the life of people at risks. However, drones have to be deployed at the right moment. Otherwise, their impact on the decision and planning making would be highly limited.

To conclude, UAVs can surely play an important role in the humanitarian crises and solve several challenges faced in these contexts. However, technological progress is still required. This process has to proceed alongside with regulations decisions and with the awareness of the fact that many ethical, privacy and security concerns occur when the use of drones implies the collection of data.

You can download the full report here

Photo Credits: DFID  – UK Department for International Development and Wikimedia Commons

 

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