Drones begin to show their development promise

Drones can be used to monitor habitat, crops or conflicts Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

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Drones could be used to deliver medicines and protect vulnerable people, but major hurdles remain, finds Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade.

[SAO PAULO] Drones have acquired a bad name for unleashing sudden death from the air. Their recent use by the US military to kill foreign, as well as US citizens suspected of terrorism, has stirred a major debate on their governance.

But there are increasing signs that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could bring development instead of destruction.

Enthusiasts argue that drones could be used to deliver medicines and vaccines, establish mobile communication networks in the wake of natural disasters, combat wildlife poaching and provide early alerts for emerging conflicts.


  • There are advanced plans to use drones for humanitarian and aid work
  • But they are costly to develop, require expertise and raise ethical concerns
  • The UN is working on a governance framework for drones, while commercial efforts push on

The charity WWF, for example, plans to make use of 'conservation drones'.

"In the first phase, WWF will be testing aerial surveillance technologies equipped with sensors to detect poachers and direct enforcement efforts," says Crawford Allan, WWF's lead on the project. "There are various technologies and WWF will focus on finding the right vehicle with the right sensors that is cost-effective and easily operable by anti-poaching teams," he tells SciDev.Net.

This work has been made possible by a US$5 million grant, in December, from Google's Global Impact Awards scheme, which will allow WWF to test advanced but easily replicable technologies in vulnerable sites in Asia and in African wildlife parks.

Aerial survey systems will be combined with animal tagging technologies and ranger patrols guided by analytical software to provide surveillance to detect and deter poaching.

"This umbrella technology, combined with on-the-ground training of rangers on the front lines of conservation, is critical in the fight against poachers and illegal wildlife trade," says Allan.

In a separate initiative last year, WWF tested basic aerial surveillance technology to monitor animals and illegal activities in Nepal's Chitwan National Park.

Bird's-eye view

Similarly, in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are plans to use drones "to identify deforested areas, environmental violations, illegal fisheries and irregularly burned crops", says Gustavo Biagioni, a captain in the Environmental Military Police in Ribeirão Preto.

Camera-equipped drones can give an operator a continuous bird's-eye view of what's happening on the ground, but in this case the drone will take and store photographs that can be analysed after it has returned to base.

The development of drones in Brazil has been hampered by the need to import parts

AGX Tecnologia

The project is the result of a partnership between the police, Sao Paulo University (USP) and aerial photography and drone development company AGX Tecnologia. Company president Adriano Kancelkis expects the scheme to become operational by July, providing they can get approval for the drone flights from Brazil's National Civil Aviation Agency.

The company is also developing an open-source drone project that will be available to other companies and individuals. Kancelkis wants to see the technology widely developed in Brazil, which he believes would force the government to introduce regulations for drone use, as well as facilitate local production of key components that currently have to be imported.

"The idea is to stimulate the development of other systems in Brazil. If all the technology is available, it can be modified according to whatever is needed," he tells SciDev.Net.

An example of these other possibilities comes from a team at the National Science and Technology Institute for Critical Embedded Systems at USP, which has devised a way of using drones for crop spraying.

The system, which its makers say could take ten years to become commercially available, is based on ground sensors that send coordinates to a drone flying a preset route. Jó Ueyama, a professor in USP's Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science and one of the project's creators, tells SciDev.Net that the sensors can help minimise wastage in pesticide spraying.

Delays to takeoff

But drone development in Brazil and several other Latin American countries is hampered by costs, a lack of know-how and unresolved safety and ethical considerations.

Kalinka Castelo Branco, another professor in USP's Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science, says the country still needs to import some of the equipment needed for drone manufacture.

Safety is another factor that has to be taken into account: guaranteeing that crashes remain a rare event and, of even greater importance in big cities such as Sao Paulo, ensuring that drones do not interfere with conventional air traffic.

Eduardo Cabral, professor at USP's Unmanned Vehicle Laboratory, tells SciDev.Net that drones are still unable to communicate with ground-based air traffic control.

"So imagine hundreds of these vehicles flying over cities," he says. "Measures would have to be taken to avoid accidents with helicopters and other aircraft."

Jean-Christopher Zufferey, research scientist and lecturer in the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, emphasises that drones used for civil applications must be lightweight and therefore unlikely to injure people in the event of a dramatic failure.

Zufferey is co-founder and CEO of senseFly, a company focused on ultralight civil UAVs based in Ecublens, Switzerland. Its mini-drones weigh less than a kilogram and are able to surveying a ten kilometre area in less than an hour, producing accurate and up-to-date 3D maps.

Fears of state surveillance of individuals and communities — or 'spies in the sky' — and of blurred lines between civilian and military operations also constrain drone development.

Some proponents argue that drones can be modified to undertake activities such as surveillance of drug trafficking in shantytowns. As the crop-spraying drone is electric, "it emits no noise, which could be useful in police operations", Ueyama says. Civil rights activists see this as a Pandora's box that could give governments significant new powers.

Military concerns

Fears about drones' potential military use already affect Brazil because of the country's participation in international arms control treaties which might treat them as possible carriers of chemical weapons. That is one of the reasons why drone projects are often held back by restrictions on imports of key elements and on testing of prototypes.

Military sensitivities are particularly acute when it comes to using drones for humanitarian work or for peaceful operations in conflict zones.

Matternet hopes to use drone networks to deliver goods in remote areas


The UN has been considering employing drones for its 'stabilisation mission' in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, told SciDev.Net in January that the aim would be to use the technology to map the movements of armed parties in eastern parts of the country to help keep civilians out of harm's way.

"The use of drones would be done only in full cooperation with the Congo government. We would also need the support of member states to equip the mission," he emphasised.

Sensitive issues arise even when it comes to using drones to help deliver aid in non-conflict zones, as Matternet, a US start-up company, is proposing in its project to speed up the delivery of supplies such as medicines to remote areas.

One of the company's founders, Andreas Raptopoulos, puts the minimum cost of setting up a flexible, automated network of 50 base stations and 150 drones at US$900,000.

Apart from costs, however, a recent article on international affairs hub Opencanada.org pointed out that the use of drones for humanitarian purposes might be more ethically problematic than it first seems.

"Drones can further complicate the already difficult challenge of differentiating humanitarian actors from military providers in the eyes of affected populations," wrote Nathaniel Raymond, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's Signal Program on Human Security and Technology, United States. "Additionally, drones can create and amplify the impression that humanitarian workers are engaged in active intelligence collection," he added.

International policy

The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is developing a framework governing drone aviation across nations. Jack Chow, former US ambassador on HIV and AIDS and a professor of global health diplomacy at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, United States, tells SciDev.Net that using drones simply to carry emergency goods from one base to a receiving base, with all parties consenting and cooperating, might minimise ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, he adds, "specialised, pioneering uses of drones mixing civilian functions in conflict zones would need to be formulated carefully". And in general, he emphasises the importance of ensuring that any international regulatory system carefully separates drone technology into military and civilian uses.

Chow suggests that ICAO, and other organisations and governments trying to establish a governance framework, should consider four key issues: privacy, accountability, safety and sovereignty. These, he says, could help to balance the individual's right to privacy with national interest, as well as assist in determining who is in charge of drone operations and how conflicts are resolved in case of misuse or accidents.

Debate over the pros and cons of drones' peaceful use continues, with proponents such as Chow backing their potential and critics such as Raymond believing that any advantage they may give NGOs in providing information or delivering aid supplies does not outweigh the risks.

Meanwhile, the technology's development continues, driven partly by commercial and governmental organisations who see potential in the peaceful operations of UAVs, but mostly by militaries keen on weapons that are effective on the battlefield but do not endanger lives on their own side.