We need to expand UAV use in humanitarian aid, not restrict it

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When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, the mountainous East Asian nation was woefully underprepared. Just 5,000 relief workers and rescuers scrambled to assist the nation's 8.1 million affected people, more than a quarter of Nepal's population.

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Thankfully, experts from Ontario, Canada-based GlobalMedic arrived with a fleet of mechanical marvels: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. Equipped with thermal imaging cameras, these UAVs quickly identified thousands of survivors among Nepal's ruined cities and temples.

But despite their humanitarian applications in disasters from Typhoon Haiyan to California's wildfires, UAVs have a less-than-stellar reputation. Unfortunately, many people see them as military weapons that kill indiscriminately, rather than humanitarian tools.

An undeserved reputation

While UAVs' controversial image stems from their military roots, the advanced mapping and imagery that UAVs provide at disaster scenes has been an object of suspicion, too. After all, this data could be abused if obtained by terrorist groups.

On top of that, connections between humanitarian aid and political objectives have drawn ire for UAVs. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is a prime example. The U.N. has used UAVs to survey Congo's borders, and they've helped combat Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces rebels. Now, MONUSCO wants to use those UAVs for humanitarian aid, but many international NGOs have decried this repurposing, claiming it muddies the waters between military and NGO objectives.

UAVs to the rescue

The stigmas surrounding UAVs shouldn't dissuade us from using them to save lives, however.

UAVs can be controlled remotely and access scenes that people can't. What's more, they incur a mere fraction of the cost and risk that traditional search-and-rescue operations do. UAVs are uniquely placed to revolutionize how humanitarian aid is delivered worldwide. 

  • 3-D mapping: In the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, UAVs were used to map the country, detailing topography with sub-decimeter accuracy. These maps were a boon to rescue efforts, which would have had to rely otherwise on 10-year-old satellite imagery or hand-drawn community maps. This approach can be used to create flood maps in areas lacking elevation data.
  • Communication networks: Developed by researchers at the University of North Texas, UAVs with directional Wi-Fi antennas can provide Internet access to disaster-torn areas within a 3.1-mile radius. This is critical for communication between rescue teams and for keeping disaster victims informed.
  • Preventive aid: UAVs can even be used to detect land mines and disarm them, potentially saving thousands of civilians' lives in war-torn areas.
  • Environmental monitoring and safety: Developing areas commonly rely on local resources for financial support, and UAVs can improve workers' safety when safety precautions are otherwise lacking. For instance, British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is using UAVs to assess stockpiles, inspect power lines and examine geological formation around mines — for about one-tenth of the per-hour cost of a helicopter.

Take action to expand UAV use

UAVs offer a landmark opportunity to assist the developing world. For example, a purpose-designed fleet of UAVs could combat an Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa by delivering much-needed materials, such as chlorine, body bags and gloves, without putting additional lives at risk.

Advocates for humanitarian UAVs should point to real-world examples of UAVs saving lives, such as in the Philippines or Nepal. By triaging and storing UAV fleets in disaster-prone areas, we can strengthen disaster preparedness initiatives and empower locals to be the true first responders. The more visible humanitarian UAV use becomes, the more quickly stigmas will fade.

Environmental groups can use UAVs to analyze soil erosion and map flood plains, then offer the data without charge to local governments and agricultural organizations. UAVs can also be used to monitor poaching activities, protecting endangered species in vast rural areas.

These stories are powerful on their own, but their true value is in shaping the narrative of UAVs as a tool for good. With increased awareness, recipients and donors will only become more comfortable with UAV technology.

Education is the key

A lack of education (and the abundance of misinformation) concerning UAVs is at the heart of the controversy around humanitarian UAVs. To combat misperceptions that UAVs are solely military weapons, we need to inform aid recipients and donors about UAVs' humanitarian potential.

At my organization, we know putting technology on the frontlines of humanitarian aid also means ensuring that local governments and communities respect and trust the technology. But more than that, it means working to shape domestic and international policy in favor of humanitarian UAVs. We actively engage with the U.N. in an effort to ensure our voice is heard.

If we truly want to help disaster victims, we need to expand humanitarian UAV use, not restrict it. Let's reeducate the world about UAVs to ensure no disaster goes without lifesaving eyes in the sky.

Chang is CEO of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on aid, empowerment and advocacy. The HALO (Help and Locate Operations) program identifies, assesses and applies current and future technologies in humanitarian and disaster scenarios.

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