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The view from above: drones in humanitarian action

The view from above: drones in humanitarian action

Drones are one of the most controversial technologies currently gaining traction in the humanitarian world. We have previously written about the ethical dilemmas that this innovative technology poses with relation to its use in the global health sphere. For example, drones, or ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (UAVs), have been used to deliver essential medicines to remote areas; but UAVs have the capacity to do much more than distribute blood packs to health centres in Rwanda. What about the use of drones after natural disasters or in conflict zones?

Following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, drones contributed to the relief effort by mapping areas quickly. UAVs provide a cheaper, more accurate alternative to satellite images – something that humanitarian agencies have been relying on for decades. Drones can be used, both by organisations and members of the public, for a myriad of purposes, from data collection and communication services to cargo delivery and search and rescue missions. Their use has grown so much in recent years that the UN has published a policy brief outlining best practices for using them in humanitarian settings. However, the use of drones in disaster response operations is hotly debated. Just how effective are they? How much added value do they provide? Are they ever “an added burden” to humanitarian operations?

Up until now, no systematic ef­fort has been made to understand if, how, and in what cir­cumstances the use of drones can deliver added value to humanitarian work. Thus, with funding from EU Humanitarian Aid, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) has been working in partnership with Zoi Environment Network, CartONG and UAViators, to investigate cases of how drones are used in humanitarian disasters. As part of this initiative FSD carried out a survey on perceptions and applications of drones. Almost 200 disaster responders working in 61 different countries took part in what is the first comprehensive survey looking at how humanitarian professionals view drones.

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Vanuatu, post Cyclone Pam. Analysis of oblique aerial imagery captured by the UAV teams. This analysis was carried out by Humanitarian OpenStreetMap. Red shelters are destroyed, yellow are partially damaged and blue largely intact. Photo from FSD. Credit: Patrick Meier.


The survey found that most humanitarians favour the use of drones in disaster zones. A substantial majority of respondents (60%) believe that drones can have a positive impact in disaster response operations, while only less than a quarter (22%) see their use negatively – at least when used following natural disasters.

Drones in conflict zones proved to be a particular sticking point. Here, humanitarian workers were sharply split: while 40% stated that drones should never be used by humanitarian organisations in conflict settings, 41% said they would consider using drones even during armed conflicts.

Negative perceptions

Firstly, there were concerns that the technology creates distance between aid workers and those affected by a disaster or conflict. One respondent pointed out the disconnect: “Humanitarian work requires empathy […] with drones human proximity to the affected people will not be there thus reducing the core value of the humanitarian work – being humane!”

Secondly, the po­tential association with military applications presented a major conflict of interest. Many respondents felt that drones jeopardise the neutrality of the humanitarian space. For example, some working in the Democratic Republic of Congo believe that the UN’s deployment of drones serves a military objective, rather than a humanitarian one. One respondent emphasises, “Whether we like it or not, UAVs are confused with weap­onised drones and are perceived by the general public as related to military operations and/or intelligence gathering.”

Indeed, a majority (57%) said that they believe that the local populations feel threatened by drones – even in non-conflict environments. However, this perception is not backed up with the experience that FSD has gathered as part of their initiative, “Fostering the Appropriate use of Air Borne Systems in Humanitarian crisis”, so far. As part of that project, FSD (in partnership with others – as mentioned earlier), is currently collecting 16 case studies that include mapping, de-mining and transporting medical samples. Ten of these case studies have already been published.

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Papua New Guinea. The difficulties that arise from inaccessible roads explains why MSF is exploring the use of drones like the Matternet One drone pictured here. Photo from FSD. Credit: Matternet.

Positive perceptions

Personal experience of using drones in their work contributed to respondents’ positive views of them. Whilst the majority had no direct experience with using drones (87%), those that did reported on how they delivered added value: “Our experience in Tanzania has been that with limited resources, we’ve been able to obtain very recent, accurate and high resolution imagery…in circumstances where a regular aerial survey would have mostly captured clouds.”

In addition, participants frequently spoke about the positive impact drones can have in enabling extended reach where direct intervention with conventional means would not be possible. This focused both on difficulties of humanitarian access in the context of insecurity and infrastructure obstacles, and on time constraints: “There are situations where human involvement is not possible or viable and drones can likely work remotely.”

Further to mapping and “having an eye in the sky,” this perceived advantage was also emphasised with respect to the potential for goods and service delivery through cargo drones: “Access is key and sometimes impossible with traditional transportation resources.”

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The Microdrone multi-rotor UAV with camera and gimbal in flight, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo from FSD. Credit: ICARUS.


Among the pool of respondents to this survey there is con­fidence that drones have a large potential to strengthen hu­manitarian work (66%) and especially that drones can greatly enhance the speed and quality of localised needs assess­ments (71%). Whilst a majority expressed favourable views, there was still some ambivalence amongst respondents about the added value that drones could offer. Overall, it’s clear that drones can act as a tool to improve – but not replace – the work of ground teams.

Drones are increasingly being used in humanitarian operations, and it’s likely that this trend will continue as the technology becomes more affordable and available. FSD’s survey shows that drones do offer many advantages and have the potential to deliver added value in the humanitarian space, but more experience amongst humanitarian workers of how to use drones appropriately is needed. It’s up to the humanitarian community to make sure that they are used safely, ethically and effectively.

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An infographic from the survey. Photo from FSD. Credit: Denise Soesilo & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

Featured image shows a drone being used following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, 2013. Photo from FSD. Credit: DanOffice.

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Amanda Cave

Having recently completed her M.A. in International Development at Sheffield University, Amanda is now pursuing a career in the sector and volunteering for various organisations. Amanda has worked in South Africa, Nepal and, most recently, Peru, where she conducted research into women’s experiences of intimate partner violence. She is a keen advocate of all things social justice, and is particularly interested in human rights, increasing young people’s participation in development, and combatting discrimination. As a feminist she is passionate about fighting gender inequality around the world as well as in the UK. You can follow her @aecave on Twitter.

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