Drones spread wings from war zones to disaster areas

Copyright: Ahikam Seri / Panos

Speed read

  • Innovation and communities are mainstreaming other uses for this weapon of war
  • These aerial robots can provide useful data for better natural disaster response
  • Drones’ technical capability should be widened and not grounded

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[MELBOURNE] While lawmakers around the world struggle to keep up with the growth in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — commonly known as drones — innovation and community participation are changing how this weapon of modern warfare can be used for humanitarian purposes.

At a conference on UAVs in Australia (23-24 July), Patrick Meier, an international consultant in the field of conflict early warning and crisis mapping, noted that these remotely piloted aircrafts are bringing communities together to collect, analyse and use UAV data to prepare for natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and landslides.

After Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, UAV projects helped in the relief efforts but they were uncoordinated and the data generated were not shared with affected communities, Meier noted.

To improve coordination in the use of UAVs, Meier co-founded the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAviators) to bridge humanitarian efforts and UAV groups internationally. The network has drafted a code of conduct on the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. It plans to roll out training and certification courses in the first half of 2015.

“Community engagement is absolutely key to these projects, including sharing data with communities who are often in the best position to use it,” he says.

He explains UAVs are now being used to create 2D and 3D maps of disaster-affected areas with more detail and in less time than is possible through satellites. “Aid and assistance can be deployed when and where these are needed because of such mapping,” he tells SciDev.Net.

UAVs can also assist with search and rescue operations, especially in remote areas. “Volunteer micro-mappers from around the world have been teaching students to develop machine language algorithms and how to automatically scan UAV images for signs of rubble with 92 per cent accuracy,” shares Meier.

In the Philippines, a local UAV startup, Skyeye, has been organised to help local communities collect, analyse and use their own data to prepare for natural disasters. It has trained five local teams to deploy UAVs in preparation for this year’s typhoon season.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is backing the humanitarian use of UAVs. It is expected to release a policy brief that calls on organisations to engage with initiatives like the Humanitarian UAV Network.

But Meier rues that while some countries such as Australia are trying to accommodate the rapid growth in UAV use, others such as the United States and Spain are grounding them.

Last March, UAVs that were ready to assist in search and rescue operations during devastating mudslides in the town of Oso in Washington were instead grounded by government.

On the other hand, aid agencies such as World Vision are enlisting UAVs to assist in emergency relief efforts. “We are excited by the possibility of UAVs of being able to speed up our damage assessments,” says Mike Patterson who is responsible for emergency logistics at World Vision.

However, he is also anxious about the perception in some circles that “drones are a silver bullet”. Patterson says presently there is still a “need to understand their real capabilities.”
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.