When we think about drones, the mind immediately conjures up images of military combat, dystopian Hollywood blockbusters or high-tech Christmas gifts for pre-teen millennials.
Although drone technology has become an increasingly frightening weapon of war, skewering the legalities of international law and placing Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy under threat, the potential for drones to save lives during and following a humanitarian disaster is extraordinary.
An independent research report called “Drones in Humanitarian Action” has been released by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) in partnership with CartONG, UAViators and Zoi Environment Network.
The report found that drones are user-friendly and have enormous capacity for deployment in a variety of humanitarian crisis contexts.
“With the help of drones, aid workers can make better decisions faster”, says Denise Soesilo, project manager at FSD.
“The main challenge is no longer the technology itself, but for drones to become an accepted tool in situations where they make sense. Through our research we have seen that aid workers are very interested in the technology, but that there is still a lot of uncertainty. Our report will help humanitarian organisations understand in which cases the use of drones can make a difference in the field.”
The in-depth report, based on 14 case studies from 10 countries, found that the most evolved and promising use of humanitarian drones today is in mapping for emergency response and disaster relief.
Given that they’re now incredibly easy to use and can capture images with 10 times as much detail as satellite, drones can take photos following natural disasters or other emergencies which experts can then use to create maps of high risk areas in consultation with local communities.
In future, there will likely be considerable interest in cargo drones capable of carrying heavy humanitarian relief items to people in besieged areas, for example. The impact of this could be phenomenal. Currently, light, high-value items such as blood, anti-venom and medical samples are transported by cargo drones, however researchers are confident that interest from the commercial logistics sector may expedite technological advancements.
There are still issues of privacy and ethics, along with great need for capacity-building in countries where drones operate and lack proper regulation.
“We generally found that local communities were very positive about the drones, but we have also seen that it is absolutely vital to involve them before and after the flights”, explains Audrey Lessard-Fontaine, project manager at CartONG.
You can read the full report here.
Featured image: Children look on as UNICEF and the Government of Malawi test the use of drones to reduce waiting times of infant HIV tests (Credit: Aris Messinis/Matternet).
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