How Drones Can Help in Humanitarian Emergencies

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Few technologies have undergone as radical a change as drones. Where five years ago, drones were mainly seen as an instrument of war, today they are far more likely to be flown by a wedding photographer than an airman. Earlier this year, the Consumer Technology Association estimated that globally 9.4 million civilian drones will be sold in 2016.

Increased reliability, ease of use and much lower prices have also made drones a viable technology for humanitarian responders. Rarely a week goes by without a new idea for how drones can revolutionize humanitarian aid: from drones that promise to detonate landmines to edible drones.

However, this hardware centric view often neglects drawing on humanitarian best practice, respecting legal frameworks, or considering ethical aspects of humanitarian innovation.

As part of the EU-ECHO funded research initiative “Drones in Humanitarian Action”, CartONG, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), UAViators and the Zoi Environment Network have spent the last two years looking into how drones can have a real impact in humanitarian crises and what humanitarian organizations should consider before using them.

At the core of the research were 14 case studies from 10 countries that looked at the impact of drones in situations ranging from search and rescue, to damage assessments and camp management to transporting medical samples.

Mapping drones currently add the most value

The report shows that mapping is by far the most evolved form of drone use in the humanitarian sector today. The technology is mature so that skilled users can quickly produce information products that are of immediate use for humanitarian programmes: drones can take photos that have 10 times as much detail as satellite images. In addition, they can fly underneath cloud cover that often blocks the view from space. The results are especially useful in countries that experience recurring disasters such as floods, storms or landslides, where precise maps can help empower communities to increase their own resilience to natural hazards or reduce risks to lives and livelihoods.

Cargo drones not yet ready for emergencies

On the other hand, drones are not yet sufficiently powerful enough to transport the tons of relief items that are typically needed during humanitarian emergencies. However, the authors expect that the considerable interest by the commercial logistics sector such as Amazon or DHL will soon result in improvements. At the moment, cargo drones are mainly limited to transporting high-value, lightweight items such as blood, anti-venom or medical samples and most cargo drone pilot projects seem to be more geared towards development than humanitarian emergency response.

As flying drones becomes easier, data processing becomes more important. Photo: FSD

As flying drones becomes easier, data processing becomes more important. Photo: FSD

Information management is key

As drones are becoming ever more easy to use, the main challenges are shifting from flying drones to processing, analysing and storing the data that drones capture. This requires capacity-building within humanitarian organizations or cooperation agreements with NGOs or companies that provide these services.

Global database for drone regulations

Another challenge is a lack of adequate regulations. In many countries, regulations do not exist and where they do exist, they typically do not include provisions for emergencies. Knowing which laws apply in a given context can be very difficult for humanitarian organizations. To help with this situation, Drones in Humanitarian Action has researched drone regulations in various countries. The information is now available under

One thing is clear: drones will become an increasingly common sight in humanitarian crises. Like all other technologies, they are not a solution in itself but can augment and improve the skills of humanitarian professionals if used in the right way. It is up to these professionals to define guidelines under which circumstances their use is ethical and useful to assist survivors of natural disasters and conflicts.

  • The full report “Drones in Humanitarian Action – A guide to the use of airborne systems in humanitarian crisis” is now available for download.

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