Tag Archives: drone

The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept

Kristin Bergtora, who directs the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies (and sits on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators), just co-authored this important study on the growing role of UAVs or drones in the humanitarian space. Kristin and fellow co-author Kjersti Lohne consider the mainstreaming of UAVs as a technology-transfer from the global battlefield. “Just as drones have rapidly become intrinsic to modern warfare, it appears that they will increasingly find their place as part of the humanitarian governance apparatus.” The co-authors highlight the opportunities that drones offer for humanitarian assistance and explore how the notion of the humanitarian UAV will change humanitarian practices.

CorePhil DSI

Kristin and Kjersti are particularly interested in two types of discourse around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The first relates to the technical and logistical functions that UAVs might potentially fulfill as humanitarian functions. The second relates to the discourse around ethical uses of UAVs. The co-authors “analyze these two types of discourse” along with “their broader implications for humanitarian action.” The co-authors make the following two assumptions prior to carrying out there analysis. First, technologies change the balance of power (institutional power). Second, “although UAV technology may still be relatively primitive, it will evolve and proliferate as a technological paradigm.” To this end, the authors assume that the use of UAVs will “permeate the humanitarian field, and that the drones will be operated not only by states or intergovernmental actors, but also by NGOs.”

The study recognizes that the concept of the “humanitarian drone” is a useful one for military vendors who are urgently looking for other markets given continuing cuts in the US defense budget. “As the UAV industry tries to influence regulators and politicians [...] by promoting the UAV as a humanitarian technology,” the co-authors warn that the humanitarian enterprise “risks becoming an important co-constructor of the UAV industry’s moral-economy narrative.” They stress the need for more research on the political economy of the humanitarian UAV.

That being said, while defense contractors are promoting their large surveillance drones for use in humanitarian settings, “a different group of actors—who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’—have entered the race. Their aim is to develop small drones to conduct SAR [search and rescue] or to provide data about emergencies, as part of the growing field of crisis mapping.” This “micro-UAV” space is the one promoted by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), not only for imaging but for multi-sensing and payload delivery. Indeed, as “the functions of UAV technologies evolve from relief-site monitoring to carrying cargo, enabling UAVs to participate more directly in field operations, ‘civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief [...].”

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As UAVs continue collecting more information on disasters and the impact of humanitarian assistance, they will “part of the ongoing humanitarian challenge of securing, making sense of and maintaining Big Data, as well as developing processes for leveraging credible and actionable information in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the humanitarian enterprise is gradually becoming concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance, and the possible costs of witnessing.” This an area that the Humanitarian UAV Network is very much concerned about, so I hope that Kristen will continue to push for this given that she is also on the Advisory Board of UAViators.

In conclusion, the authors believe that the “focus on weaponized drones fails to capture the transformative potential of humanitarian drones and their possible impact on humanitarian action, and the associated pitfalls.” They also emphasize that “the notion of the humanitarian drone is still an immature concept, forming around an immature technology. It is unclear whether the integration of drones into humanitarian action will be cost-effective, ethical or feasible.” I agree with this but only in part since Kristin and Kjersti do not include small or micro-UAVs in their study. The latter are already being integrated in a cost-effective & ethical manner, which is in line with the Humanitarian UAV Network’s mission.

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More research is needed on the role of small-UAVs in the humanitarian space and in particular on the new actors deploying them: from citizen journalists and local, grassroots communities to international humanitarian organizations & national NGOs. Another area ripe for research is the resulting “Big Data” that is likely to be generated by these new data collection technologies.

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See Also:

  •  Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

How UAVs Are Making a Difference in Disaster Response

I visited the University of Torino in 2007 to speak with the team developing UAVs for the World Food Program. Since then, I’ve bought and tested two small UAVs of my own so I can use this new technology to capture aerial imagery during disasters; like the footage below from the Philippines.

UAVs, or drones, have a very strong military connotation for many of us. But so did space satellites before Google Earth brought satellite imagery into our homes and changed our perceptions of said technology. So it stands to reason that UAVs and aerial imagery will follow suit. This explains why I’m a proponent of the Drone Social Innovation Award, which seeks to promote the use of civilian drone technology for the benefit of humanity. I’m on the panel of judges for this award, which is why I reached out to DanOffice IT, a Swiss-based company that deployed two drones in response to Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The drones in question are Huginn X1′s, which have a flight time of 25 minutes with a range of 2 kilometers and maximum altitude of 150 meters.

HUGINN X1

I recently spoke with one of the Huginn pilots who was in Tacloban. He flew the drone to survey shelter damage, identify blocked roads and search for bodies in the debris (using thermal imaging cameras mounted on the drone for the latter). The imagery captured also helped to identify appropriate locations to set up camp. When I asked the pilot whether he was surprised by anything during the operation, he noted that road-clearance support was not a use-case he had expected. I’ll be meeting with him in Switzerland in the next few weeks to test-fly a Huginn and explore possible partnerships.

I’d like to see closer collaboration between the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and groups like DanOffice, for example. Providing DHN-member Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOTosm) with up-to-date aerial imagery during disasters would be a major win. This was the concept behind OpenAerialMap, which was first discussed back in 2007. While the initiative has yet to formally launch, PIX4D is a platform that “converts thousands of aerial images, taken by lightweight UAV or aircraft into geo-referenced 2D mosaics and 3D surface models and point clouds.”

Drone Adventures

This platform was used in Haiti with the above drones. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) partnered with Drone Adventures to map over 40 square kilometers of dense urban territory including several shantytowns in Port-au-Prince, which was “used to count the number of tents and organize a ‘door-to-door’ census of the population, the first step in identifying aid requirements and organizing more permanent infrastructure.” This approach could also be applied to IDP and refugee camps in the immediate aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster. All the data generated by Drone Adventures was made freely available through OpenStreetMap.

If you’re interested in giving “drones for social good” a try, I recommend looking at the DJI Phantom and the AR.Drone Parrot. These are priced between $300- $600, which beats the $50,000 price tag of the Huginn X1.

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The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance

In my previous blog post on the use of drones for human rights, I also advocated for the use of drones to support nonviolent civil resistance efforts. Obviously, like the use of any technology in such contexts, doing so presents both new opportunities and obvious dangers. In this blog post, I consider the use of DIY drones in the context of civil resistance, both vis-a-vis theory and practice. While I’ve read the civil resistance literature rather widely for my dissertation, I decided to get input from two of the world’s leading experts on the topic.

The first expert opined as follows: “Whether a given technology delivers strategic or tactical avantage is typically dependent on context. So to the extent that a drone can be useful in getting evidence that delegitimizes a movement’s opponent (i.e. exposing atrocities), and/or legitimizes a movement (i.e. docu-menting strictly nonviolent activities), and/or provides useful intelligence to a movement about an opponent’s current capabilities (i.e. the amount of supplies an adversary has), strengths, and weaknesses, then one could indeed argue that drones could provide strategic or tactical advantages.  But contextually speaking, if the amount of human and financial resources necessary to acquire and deploy a drone are a drain on beneficial activities that a movement may otherwise be undertaking, then it’s a cost/benefit analysis.”

As this New York Times article notes, the cost of drones is dropping dramatically and their applications multiplying. Even Professor Francis Fukuyama is getting in on the action. While drones were once exclusively the purview of the military, they are quickly becoming mainstream and being used by civilians. Indeed, the line dividing remote control toy planes and drones is starting to blur. Keep in mind that satellite imagery had a strong military connotation before Google Earth entered the scene a few  years ago. Indeed, greater civilian access to satellite imagery has demystified this erstwhile exclusively military technology.

A few weeks ago, a civilian used a simple Hexa Arducopter to film protests in Estonia. Around the same time, protestors in Warsaw used a small Polish RoboKopter equipped with a videocamera to get this drone’s eye view of police movement. Last year, a Hexacopter was used to film Russian protests, as repor-ted by CNN below.

As Wired editor-in-chief and drone-builder Chris Anderson notes, “no more do citizens need to wait for news choppers to get aerial footage of a major event. With drones, they can shoot their own overhead video.” Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman writes that “getting an aerial view is the next step in compelling DIY citizen video. [...] An aerial view gives an entirely different perspective what constitutes a legitimate—and illegitimate—threat.”

The second civil resistance expert I consulted argued that “nonviolent move-ments definitely need good and timely information in order to engage in effective strategic planning, to be able to anticipate regime responses, etc., so we can draw on the strategic nonviolent conflict literature. And we can cite Brian Martin and Wendy Varney on how exposing regime violence (via images) targeting non-violent opposition can produce an important backfire effect, leading to loss of domestic and international support for the regime. Gene Sharp referred to it as political jiu-jitsu.”

Indeed, an arial view could capture a different perspective than state-television cameras might, and thus reveal an illegitimate act on behalf of the regime that is also not captured by cell phone cameras. To this end, an illegitimate act carried out by a repressive regime could backfire if caught on drone cameras and subsequently shared via Twitter, Flickr and/or YouTube. As Sharp writes, too much brutality may result in political jiu-jitsu where the opposition group is able to increase their unity and support while politically throwing the ruler off balance and weakening his/her regime.

I’ve blogged about Gene Sharp’s work several times on iRevolution, so I won’t expand on his bio here. In 1973, he published a book on nonviolent action in which he describes 198 tactics that civil resistance can employ in their campaign. I briefly reviewed these again within the context of DIY drones and have added some relevant ones below together with an explanation.

12. Skywriting and earthwriting: while drones are typically used for sur-veillance, they could be used for skywriting (or sky-graffiti). They could also be used to take pictures or videos of earthwriting.

18. Displays of flags and symbolic colors: just like the above, drones could also be used to fly small flags and banners, which could further spread the message of the movement. This could be safer than other methods.

31. “Haunting” officials: drones could be used to try and follow specific officials or groups of officials, especially as they are moving through the city center. They could also be used to follow military vehicles. These drones could also take pictures of said officials and military equipment, which could be used to further haunt said officials.

32. Taunting officials: in this case, drones could be used to buzz officials up close and personal. Of course, this would make it easier for the drone to get shot down. Perhaps if protestors used a fleet of DIY drones, there would be strength in numbers, creating an annoying wasp effect. For those drones that can carry some payload, leaflet could be dropped from said drones. If the pilots are particularly adept, they could also drop paint or even, well, urine.

161. Nonviolent harassment: basically same as points 31 & 32. Perhaps drones could be used to harass officials trying to give speeches. If some DIY drones are capable of carrying small but particularly loud speakers, they could be used to play music, or play back political speeches in which officials were clearly lying.

169. Nonviolent air raids: the tactics described above qualify as nonviolent air raids. Perhaps a drone could carry some firecrackers and buzz an airbase. Of course, this would likely provoke return fire with live ammunition.

184. Defiance of blockades: buzzing of blockades would demonstrate that while they can block people and cars, they care not impermeable. Those drones capable of carrying payloads could also be used to transport small packages across blockades.

194. Disclosing identities of secret agents: this is certainly more challenging and would require additional reconnaissance and intelligence information. But suspected secret agents could potentially be followed via small, DIY drones, particularly the hexacopter variety.

“At the end of the day,” according to the first expert I consulted, “a drone is a tool, and the strategic advantage it may provide will also depend on the funda-mental unity, planning, and discipline that a movement has or does not have.  For example, if a movement is lacking a fundamentally good and unifying message, no amount of technology will substitute for that, and thus the strategic value of that technology is diminished in the context of that movement.  On the other hand if a movement has a good and unifying message and levers technology to reinforce that message, then the technology can act as a multiplier and provide substantially more strategic value.