The second life of drones. The dreaded technology can also be a force for good

After being created for military purposes, the use of drones for humanitarian aid is growing. Yet their renaissance isn’t uncontroversial.

In April 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, and the population was highly unprepared to face the devastation. Only 5,000 people were available to rescue the more than 8 million affected. GlobalMedic, a rescue unit from Canada, was able to use drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), to identify thousands of survivors among what remained of temples and towns.


drones fly over recovery efforts sankhu nepal earthquake
Sankhu, Nepal: recovering bodies from the rubble left by the earthquake and its aftershocks © David Ramos/Getty Images


Drones for humanitarian aid could be the future. UAVs can access scenes that people can’t, collecting an incredible amount of information at a much lower cost than what is employed in traditional search-and-rescue operations. They can also be used for wildlife watching, environmental monitoring, forest fire detection and delivering medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas. The technology, however, also raises questions about air safety, privacy, security and ethics.


Drones’ use as military weapons is what people usually associate them with. Like the internet, they were created with military purposes in mind as early as World War II but it was not until the Vietnam War that they were used for combat operations, due to the many lives lost and cost of missions during the conflict. And as happened with the internet, drone technology is evolving faster than laws, and national regulations vary greatly from country to country.


Drones have been used in situations as disparate as monitoring and preserving South American archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, extinguishing fires in southern California and aiding rescue missions during hurricane Sandy, which hit the northeastern coast of the United States in 2012. They were used in 2013 by the UN’s mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Monusco, to survey the borders and help combat the Ugandan rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces, protecting civilians and used as deterrents against hostile fighters. However, when Monusco proposed to use them to gather information for humanitarian purposes international NGOs refused for fear that this information might be shared with the military, therefore compromising the core principles of relief organisations, namely neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.


A drone taking off in the US state of Arizona
A drone taking off in the US state of Arizona for a surveillance flight near the US-Mexico border © John Moore/Getty Images


There is a strong need for a code of conduct and best practices in using drones for humanitarian aid according to Patrick Meier, an expert in humanitarian technology innovations and the founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network. At a symposium on drones held in Washington, DC in July he urged the drafting of clear data ethics as well as a partnership between humanitarian organisations, drones teams and local authorities to coordinate their actions and sharing of data.


Drones will be used to fly products to our doorstep, as Amazon, Google and Walmart are trying to do in the near future, or they can be the consumer’s dream toy. However, they can also be employed for spying and this dichotomy is scaring many even from accepting their use for humanitarian and peacekeeping purposes.

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