Using Drones to save life

For many years, Drones have received plenty of coverage in the media mainly for negative reasons. Military drones operated by the US Air Force and other national militaries came to prominence soon after 9-11. They can be used for various operations such as surveillance and intelligence gathering, Electronic warfare where powerful transmitters disrupt communications and weapons systems and drones are used to carry weapons which have been used to take down targets and to kill people.  

In more recent years, small battery powered drones have become widely available in many countries on the domestic market. For less than $1000, any member of the public can buy a small drone over the internet without any requirement to demonstrate any capability to operate the drone safely. Its these drones which are now regarded as a pest by some authorities. Whilst most owners will operate drones responsibly, there have been plenty of incidents where drones have been flown too close to commercial aircraft thus creating a lot of angst for pilots and airport authorities.  

Drones have been used by criminal gangs to check out a property before raiding it. Drones have been used drones to smuggle drugs and other items into prisons. Criminal activities like this has now spawned a new industry where security drones or other devices are made to take down drones which are being a pest or engaged in illegal activity.  

But can drones be used for a positive outcome?  Yes, definitely. The drone’s elder sister, the airplane is not that much different to a drone. In fact, is an aerial platform which does not have a person on board flying it. So not that different from an aircraft as all – yet we do not view the word “Aircraft” with the same disdain as do for a drone, despite the fact that there is aircraft currently being used to kill people in Syria and other war zones.  

In this article, I am going to shine the spotlight on how drones can be used for missions which have positive outcomes and perhaps save lives. NGOs are viewing this new technology with great interest. Some organisations are already using them. In the years ahead, we may see drones playing a significant role in humanitarian operations.

Branding
There is no doubt about it, the word “Drone” is problematic, and many have come to the conclusion that this world has such a strong association with war, loss of life and widespread deduction. “Drone” as a term is so toxic that organisations using this technology for humanitarian purposes are using a longer description “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs”. Various working groups have been set up to develop a set of best practices for operating UAVs. The subject of winning hearts and minds so that UAVs become an acceptable tool in humanitarian work rather than being a threat or a pest is very high on the agenda. We will take a closer look at the UAV work groups later on.  

The basic UAV
UAV technology is now widely available as a mainstream product. Typically these units cost less than $1000, and limited to aerial photography. The commercially available UAVs tend to be compact and use four rotors to sustain flight. On a full charge, these UAVs have short flight times (typically 30 mins or less), but this is sufficient to conduct short flights to obtain very local aerial photography. At the low end of the budget spectrum, UAVs are controlled by a WiFi signal which tend to limit the operational range to 100m or just beyond. It is possible to operate these short range UAVs beyond 100m using pre-programmed flight paths, however this can be a little risky!

Extending the range and payload.
The humanitarian community started its UAV journey by using the smaller units which provides aerial photography of an area affected by disaster. For earthquake situations, UAVs are well suited to search and rescue work as they can help the responders to work out the best way to access a site. As these UAVs are light, there is practically no downdraft which means that they will not cause further issues by causing unstable structures to move further.

 

Beyond aerial photography UAVs have many other uses. Fixed wing UAVs can stay airborne for much longer and cover more ground. This can enable organisations to carry out a rapid assessment over a wider area after disaster strikes to identify populations in need. At sea, organisations are helicopter UAVs which runs on aviation fuel. MOAS is using UAVs off the coast of Libya to identify refugee boats in need to rescue. With a range of 100KM, the UAVs can search a large area quick which then means that the ship can get to where it’s needed more quickly.

UAVs as they get larger are able to carry more weight. Amazon is piloting the technology to deliver parcels to customers. The same approach can be used to get vital supplies to remote locations. Long range information discovered by UAVs can be quickly added to GIS and the shared in almost real-time with all stakeholders.

There are now organisations looking into developing UAVs which are capable of carrying people. The BBC reported recently that one organisation is working on a UAV which can carry a paramedic and a patient from a road accident scene to hospital.

UAVs as an aerial planform can be purposed for other tasks as well. Different types of sensors could be mounted on UAVs to measure atmospheric risks or to act as an airborne relay to transmit radio information.

It’s time to get ready!
UAVs will have a significant role to play in both emergency and development humanitarian aid. The UAV area will be a complete “Can of Worms” as there will be many regulatory authorities taking a great deal of interests and perhaps resisting deployment. Such authorities will include military, civil aviation, communications, privacy/data protection and so on. Whilst there will be initial resistance (and in some places UAVs will be no-go), NGOs will need to get ready to take advantage of UAVs and what they can offer. As a community, we need to take a very responsible approach so that UAVs are operated in a very responsible way. If as a community, we take a cavalier approach and put UAVs in the sky without permission and coordination, we will draw a lot of attention to ourselves and may face a complete block to future deployments.  

To get ready to embrace the value UAVs have to offer, the aid community must take action now to ensure that humanitarian use of UAVs are viewed positively by all stakeholders. Getting ready means two things: 

·         Firstly, NGOs need to understand what different types of UAV is capable of. They need to be innovative and advocate for the development of solutions which can be hosted on a UAV platform for the benefit of humanitarian operations. There is a definite overlap with ICT4D here. How we approach using UAVs need to be decided as a joint enterprise between humanitarian programmatic people and technologies.

·         Good coordination is essential. We are at the very beginning of the UAV ear and this is a great opportunity to be efficient and professional from the very start. Organisations such as UAViators now exist and are developing best practices for operating UAVs. Commercial entities now exist who operates high quality UAVs. Organisations like the Emergency Telecoms Cluster and Nethope have established working groups manage coordination of the UAV topic.

·         Establishing best practice will be the key to success. Whilst we have to work to get support from various government departments, it’s essential to work with local communities. There needs be community sensitisation built into any UAV operation so that communities know in advance what these new flying machines do and what value they will add to the humanitarian effort. 

So what does “Good UAV Practice” look like? Ideally I would like to see the NGO/UN sector operating UAVs in a very managed and professional manner. It must not be the “free for all” where many individuals put cheap domestic UAV pests into the sky – we will just get push back from communities and authorities.  Ideally it is better that a small number of professional UAV operators evolve to provide services to multiple agencies who are operating in the same area. The operators could be commercial or perhaps a small number of specialist units which sit within UN agencies or NGOs. Ideally with organisations such as the ETC and Nethope taking the lead, we will end up with many NGOs tasking a single resource to access standard (pre-agreed) data.

This approach will promote better quality UAV platforms and services and keep costs down. As we will not be filling the skies with pestilence, the NGO sector will gain the trust and respect from authorities and local communities. If we take a more cavalier approach, NGOs will not be permitted to fly UAVs and take advantage of the benefits they bring.

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