Original article published on CEA blog on 24 September, 2015. Written by Grace Dobush. To read the original article, click here.

Drone at Sunset

When disaster strikes or conflicts arise, damaged or missing infrastructure is often a major roadblock to deploying humanitarian assistance. Many organizations are now exploring the use of drones in relief efforts. Projects have involved everything from mapping to search and rescue to public information, but practical and ethical challenges remain.

Patrick Meier, founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, is traveling all around the world to connect stakeholders and develop best practices so traditionally cautious humanitarian organizations can embrace the technology and drone makers and enthusiasts have a better understanding of best practices on the ground. “Because it’s a new emergent technology, and it’s changing every week, we have to not hype these things up, but we have to build up the evidence base,” Meier says. “There are very compelling arguments that UAVs will be useful in the humanitarian space,” but before organizations sign on, they have to have proof.

Unmanned systems, or drones, can aid in three major areas of relief: data collection (such as assessing damage and determining needs by analyzing images or identifying isolated populations or groups on the move), communication services (using drones to create meshed mobile communications or provide aerial cellphone towers) and payload delivery (such as delivering first aid kits or medicines or distributing flyers and information). The three areas are all interconnected. After a tsunami, for example, a drone could identify the location of a stranded population, another could drop flyers notifying them that help was coming and that cell reception would be available the next day at a specific time, thanks to a third drone sent up to serve as an aerial mobile network tower.

Tech companies have the hardware, software and expertise; humanitarian organizations have the on-the-ground connections and experience. Getting the two groups in a room together has proven challenging but is necessary for humanitarian drones to take off.

In the wake of the Nepal earthquake in April, the country’s aviation authority cracked down on rampant drone use. Tech people who want to get involved need to ask a lot of questions first, Meier says: “What are the humanitarian principles? How does the U.N. work? How do organizations work in crises? How do you plug into those? What kind of data or payload deliveries do they need?”

The Humanitarian UAV Network recently worked on a project in Vanuatu, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Cyclone Pam all but wiped out the small island nation’s infrastructure in March. To survey the extent of the damage, drones captured 4,000 aerial images, which would have taken a small staff years to review. Instead, the image analysis was crowdsourced on MicroMappers.org, where anyone with a little free time could help trace the outlines of houses and mark whether they were intact, partially damaged or destroyed. The same platform can facilitate live analysis of video footage, and the next step will be using virtual reality headsets. “When Oculus Rift comes out, we can go totally virtual with the analysis and have people put on their headsets and walk down a street in Kathmandu and point out places,” Meier says.

The American Red Cross used an unmanned system in Indonesia to assess the impact of humanitarian efforts 10 years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, says Michele Lynch, manager of the organization’s Global Technology Project. “Our Red Cross colleagues around the world are also experimenting with UAVs for weather monitoring, hazard mapping and damage assessments,” she says. “To support the safe and responsible use of UAVs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent also plan to incorporate a module on International Humanitarian Law to a new training curriculum that will accompany the registration and certification process for UAV pilots, ensuring their awareness, understanding and respect for the humanitarian principles and rules of war.”

Chris Fabian says UNICEF’s Innovation Lab has targeted drones as one of the technologies it will use in the next three to five years. In early 2016, UNICEF’s venture fund will accept proposals for connectivity and real-time imaging projects, and Fabian says the fund will likely make three or four $50,000 or $100,000 investments.

But even before the proposal period opens up, UNICEF has been talking with governments in developing countries about using drones in agriculture and infrastructure.  “In countries where you might not expect it, people are interested in cultivating local talent with drones. That’s much more interesting than people coming in from outside, knock stuff over and put up scary stuff you’ve never seen before,” Fabian says. Focusing on practical applications and benefits for local governments is the best way to ensure buy-in. “What happens in a place like the Amazon where you have no 3G or GSM coverage? And how do you get coverage to schools that are days’ boat rides away from each other?” Fabian says. “Starting that way works better than asking, ‘Do you want drones, because drones are cool.’”

Meier also says there can be resistance to drones from the side of humanitarian organizations — but he’s surprised by the fact there hasn’t been more resistance. He reports, “More than one person said the same thing: ‘You know what, we totally missed the boat on the mobile technology revolution. We were the last adopters for using SMS, mobile phones and smartphones. We don’t want to miss the boat again.’”

Another big challenge is public perception of drones. People who live in countries targeted by military drones might be understandably wary of any drone projects and the U.N. advises against using civilian drones in conflict areas. So many organizations are instead using the term UAV (which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle) and UNICEF is trying to get its own peaceful acronym off the ground: DOVE, which stands for Driverless Operated Vehicle Environments and includes balloons and zeppelins as well as drones.

The Red Cross is looking to community engagement to inform its design process. “We’ve been inspired by the resilience of the disaster-affected communities with whom we met and their optimism towards the technology,” Lynch says. “In many instances, community members shared how UAVs were already being used in their community and had ideas for how the technology could be leveraged to help them prepare for, respond to and recover more quickly from disasters.”

Meier says the single biggest challenge for using drones in humanitarian relief is regulation. Some countries’ civil aviation authorities flat out ban all unmanned aerial vehicle traffic. Others require that drones not pass a certain height or that they always stay in the operator’s line of sight. Countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia are more permissive, but authorities understandably like to err on the side of public safety. If drones are going to be deployed regularly in humanitarian crises, regulations have to be reasonable. “What’s going to help facilitate that change is evidence,” Meier says, “showing that using UAVs can be better than manned aircraft or satellite or trucks or motorcycles in certain circumstances and can save money.”

When new technology arises, overregulation can stifle innovation, Meier says, and with drones being so new, there aren’t any best practices for countries’ aviation authorities as of yet. A report by Measure created in cooperation with the American Red Cross makes a number of recommendations for the Federal Aviation Authority, including creating an expedited emergency operating certificate and allowing small drones to be used within disaster zones.

And it’s better to address the idea of drones now than when it’s an emergency. Rather than waiting for the unthinkable to happen, “Wouldn’t it be even better to catalyze a local UAV community in countries that are highly disaster prone?” Meier asks. “Then there’s this local community of UAV operators that can work with private companies.”

To learn more about drones and disaster relief, download the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2014 report “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response.”

Learn more about how unmanned systems are changing our world at CESweb.org/changetheworld.

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