Report: Are UAVs Ready to Take Center Stage in Humanitarian Aid?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become functional, user-friendly and inexpensive enough to significantly help in humanitarian crises, according to key findings from a recent research project entitled “Drones in Humanitarian Action.”

The independent report was presented by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) in partnership with CartONG, UAViators and the Zoi Environment Network during the EU Humanitarian Aid Annual Partners’ conference in Brussels, Belgium.

“With the help of drones, aid workers can make better decisions faster,” says Denise Soesilo, project manager at FSD. “The main challenge is no longer the technology itself – but for drones to become an accepted tool in situations where they make sense. Through our research, we have seen that aid workers are very interested in the technology but that there is still a lot of uncertainty. Our report will help humanitarian organizations understand in which cases the use of drones can make a difference in the field.”

The in-depth report is based on 14 case studies from 10 countries, as well as on consultations, stakeholder meetings and a survey of humanitarian professionals in 61 countries. The results showed that UAVs are particularly well suited for humanitarian response operations when they are used to create maps.

According to the partners, 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. This is especially useful in countries that experience recurring disasters such as floods, storms or landslides, the report notes.

Once drones have taken detailed images of an area, experts can then create maps of areas that are at high risk. These maps can then be discussed with the local communities to see where the risks are and how they can be addressed, the report explains.

On the other hand, the partners say, drones are not yet sufficiently powerful to transport the tons of relief items that are typically needed during humanitarian emergencies.

However, the authors expect that the considerable interest in cargo drones by the commercial logistics sector will result in improvements in the near future. Search and rescue, mine clearance and firefighting are additional uses of drones that the report looks into.

Many concerns related to privacy, security and the ethics of using drones are also still unresolved, the authors have found.

“We generally found that local communities were very positive about the drones, but we have also seen that it is absolutely vital to involve them before and after the flights,” says Audrey Lessard-Fontaine, project manager at CartONG.

“Drones in Humanitarian Action” was co-funded by EU Humanitarian Aid and without any financial involvement of the drone industry, the partners note.

FSD is an international mine action organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. The nonprofit organization, created in 1997, has a goal to alleviate the social, economic and environmental impacts of landmines and unexploded ordnance and create favorable conditions for the reconstruction and development of war-torn countries.

CartONG is a French non-governmental organization committed to furthering the use of geographic information tools to improve data-gathering and analysis for emergency relief and development programs around the world.

The Zoi Environment Network, also based in Geneva, is an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to reveal, explain and communicate connections between the environment and society.

With over 2,500 members in 80-plus countries, UAViators’ mission is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs for data collection and cargo delivery in a range of humanitarian and development settings.

The full report and case studies is available here.

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