UNITAR humanitarian reconnaissance drone UNITAR humanitarian reconnaissance drone Photo credit: Jean-Marc Ferré
The promise and perils of ‘disaster drones’
by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne August 2013

The dire humanitarian consequences of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in conflict have become all too familiar. In contrast, there has been much less public discussion about the potential humanitarian uses of drones. So-called ‘disaster drones’ offer humanitarian agencies a range of possibilities in relation to crisis mapping, search and rescue and (some way off in the future) cargo transport and relief drops.

How can the humanitarian community benefit from the technological advances that UAVs and other unmanned or automated platforms offer without giving further legitimacy to a UAV industry looking for civilian applications for drones developed for military purposes? Are there particular ethical, legal and financial implications with respect to procuring disaster drones? This article gives an overview of current and foreseeable uses of disaster drones and ‘(ro)bots without borders’, highlighting the need for a more thorough understanding of the commercial logic underpinning the transfer of technology from the military to the civilian and humanitarian fields, and the systematic attempts being made by the UAV industry to rebrand itself as a humanitarian actor. It also shares insights from a recent workshop on the potential role of drones in Red Cross search and rescue operations, and concludes by linking the issue of the disaster drone to broader questions regarding humanitarian technology.

Current and foreseeable uses of ‘disaster drones’

Drones were first used in a ‘humanitarian’ capacity in Bosnia in 1994, when the US deployed the Gnat 750 to provide overhead surveillance for NATO convoys. Since then, they have been increasingly used for mapping and monitoring disaster sites, and in search and rescue operations, including in wildfires in California in 2007, the Haitian earthquake in 2010 and at the nuclear disaster site in Japan in 2011. NATO and the European Union (EU) are using surveillance drones in their peace support operations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, the EU provided the UN Stabilisation Mission (MONUC) with four Belgian UAVs. EUFOR, the EU mission to the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), used drones for aerial surveillance. The UN approved the use of drones by the MONUSCO mission to monitor the conflict in Eastern DRC in late 2012, though these were to be provided by member states as the UN does not – yet – own any drones.

Part of the appeal of drones is their ability to undertake ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ jobs. In the military, some of the dullest, dirtiest and most dangerous work is related to supplying troops. While the mass use of drones to transport cargo is still some years away, since late 2011 the US military has tested the capacity of unmanned Kaman K-Max helicopters to deliver heavy cargo to remote outposts in Afghanistan.+UAVs Hauling Cargo Into the Future’, StrategyPage, 27 October 2012, http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htairmo/20121027.aspx. According to the manufacturer, these drones will eventually be put to civilian use, including in the delivery of humanitarian relief.+Harry Weisburger, ‘Heli-Expo 2011: Unmanned K-Max Deploying to Afghanistan This Summer’, AINOnline, 7 March 2011, http://www.ainonline.com.

Tomorrow’s ‘bots without borders’

In addition to defence contractors looking for new markets, civilian manufacturers and research institutions are investing substantial resources in developing ‘everyday’ uses for UAVs. While many of these actors routinely list ‘humanitarian applications’ in the promotion of their products, a different group of actors, who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’, have also entered the race.+See http://digitalhumanitarians.com and http://crisismappers.net for examples. See also Dr Robin Murphy’s blog Rescue Robotics at http://www.rescuerobotics.blogspot.nl. One example is the OpenRelief project, launched by developers at the 2012 Linux Japan conference, which aims to build a low-cost, remote-controlled robotic plane to assess disaster damage in hard-to-reach areas.+Libby Clark, ‘OpenRelief Launches Open Source Disaster Relief Drone’, Linux Foundation, 7 June 2012, http://www.linuxfoundation.org.

Another example is the Matternet project, whose ambitious vision is to create ‘the next paradigm for transportation’. Through a network of small drones, goods and medicines will be delivered to remote settlements, directed across the internet.+See http://matternet.us. In preliminary trials in 2012, Matternet delivered medicines to a relief camp in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.+Alexandra Gibb, ‘Drones in the Field’, OpenCanada.org, 10 December 2012, ‘An Internet of Airborne Things’, The Economist Technology Quarterly, December 2012, http://www.economist.com. Belonging to the same ‘bots without borders+Bots Without Borders’, IRIN, 22 June 2009, http://www.irinnews.org. movement, but taking a non-commercial approach, ARIA (Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Arrays) is seeking to provide rural areas in Africa with a humanitarian drone skyway network designed to ‘fight poverty from the air’.+Jack C. Chow, ‘Predators for Peace’, Foreign Policy, 27 April 2012, http://www. foreignpolicy.org.

The UAV industry as a humanitarian actor?

The humanitarian potential of UAVs has been touted by the industry for a long time, with ‘drone stakeholders’ stressing that ‘drones don’t just end human life, they also save it’.+Matthew Harwood, ‘Drone Stakeholders Stress Robots’ Humanitarian Upside’, Security Management, 8 November 2011, http://www.securitymanagement. com. Lobbying groups such as the US Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the British Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVS) and ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) are shaping the debate about drones in civilian airspace. The concept of ‘humanitarian drones’ plays an important role in expanding the market for UAVs with government customers by identifying and lobbying for new ‘humanitarian’ uses, and in relation to the general public, where vendors feel increasingly threatened by activists and critical news coverage of the civilian consequences of the use of drones in combat.

Parallel to the promotion of UAVs as a technology for use in humanitarian operations, we are also seeing a general attempt by the industry to brand UAVs as a humanitarian technology in efforts to build legitimacy in the eyes of increasingly concerned domestic audiences. Last year the Guardian newspaper in the UK reported that UAVS had recommended that ‘drones deployed in Britain should be shown to “benefit mankind in general”, be decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements, and be painted bright colours to distance them from those used in warzones’. According to the generalsecretary of UAVS, ‘“If they’re brightly coloured, and people know why they’re there, it makes them a lot more comfortable … We want to be associated with safe, civil applications [of UAVs] that have a humanitarian, ecological and environmental benefit”’.+Ryan Gallagher, ‘Surveillance Drone Industry Plans PR Effort To Counter Negative Image’, The Guardian, 2 February 2012. In an effort to allay public concerns, AUVSI launched the not-sosubtly named website ‘Increasing human potential’ (http://increasinghumanpotential.org) towards the end of 2012.

The view from below: issues for potential users

In the future humanitarian organisations will increasingly engage in discussions about the politics and logistics of procuring drones. As ‘humanitarian technology’ has become a more commercially interesting field, the humanitarian enterprise needs to get better at dealing with the vendors of these products. However, the use of ‘humanitarian drones’ also raises important ethical and legal issues, which will need to be fleshed out and discussed.

In March 2012, the Norwegian Red Cross, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the Norwegian Board of Technology, a semi-independent body for assessing new technology, held a workshop to discuss the potential of drones in search and rescue (SAR) operations.+DESSI (2013): Deliverable 5.3, Test Case Report: Security and Safety in Search and Rescue Operations. Project: Decision Support on Security Investment. http://securitydecisions.org and http://www.prio.no/News/Item/?x=1711. Representatives from the government, the military, research institutions and the UAV industry also participated. In many jurisdictions, debates on the opening of civil airspace for drones have high public visibility. Who will be responsible for the drone, and for safety issues when the distribution of command responsibility between voluntary organisations, government-operated SAR units and local police departments is unclear? In the workshop it became evident that personal data and privacy considerations were complicated: if imagery collected by a drone is stored, there are strict requirements as to how this information can be accessed, aggregated and distributed. What will be the implications for humanitarian operations in countries with less robust or even non-existent regulatory frameworks for data protection and privacy?

The licensing and training of drone pilots (to ensure the safety of people on the ground and other aircraft) and the problem of obtaining speedy access to segregated airspace emerged as additional challenges. Should voluntary organisations become civil aviation companies themselves, or should they outsource their use of drones? Finally, the Red Cross participants pointed to the question of who will pay. Drone technology is still relatively expensive, and many models suffer frequent technical problems or high rates of loss during missions. It would be deeply problematic should the procurement of drones crowd out less ‘sexy’ investments vital to sustain search and rescue operations.


The humanitarian sector is extremely optimistic about the potential for technology to improve service delivery. Based on general trends in the UAV industry and the considerable interest the Red Cross workshop attracted from the Norwegian UAV industry, it will be important to consider the consequences when UAV manufacturers that are also defence contractors target the humanitarian technology market. As the industry eyes civilian applications for its products, it is likely that governments, as humanitarian donors, will be subject to extensive lobbying efforts, both to procure ‘humanitarian drones’ and to push for the inclusion of humanitarian drones as part of international engagements, similar to the planned UN drone deployment in Eastern DRC. Humanitarian agencies must give greater thought to the practical, ethical and legal implications of these developments.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is Senior Researcher at the PRIO and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. Kjersti Lohne is a PhD Research Fellow at University of Oslo.