Challenges remain for drone use in humanitarian relief

Challenges remain for drone use in humanitarian relief


First responders are increasingly deploying drones across the Indo Asia Pacific to improve and speed data collection and help save lives and property after a disaster. Drones can also bolster disaster preparedness by helping assess risks, advocates say.

After Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm that hit Vanuatu in March 2015, impacting 166,000 people dispersed across 22 islands, relief groups flew drones over the area to provide damage assessments and help bridge fractured communication networks. Responders also used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Nepal after a massive earthquake struck in late April 2015, killing more than 7,500 people and wreaking havoc across the nation. (The accompanying photo comes from video taken from a drone on April 25, 2014, showing damage caused by the 7.8-magnitude temblor in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.) UAVs were first prominently used in the region when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013.

Increasing drone use, however, has raised questions about related safety, ethics and privacy rights. Even Patrick Meier, founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, which was initiated by the Qatar Computing Research Institute, was critical of how drones were used in Nepal. “You had a lot of people coming in and not really understanding the local dynamics, the regulations, the culture and maybe, I would say, causing more harm than good even though their intentions were in the right place,” Meier told The Washington Post newspaper in October 2015.

In May 2015, in response to citizen complaints about how media might use the images, Nepal implemented rules governing drone use. The nation’s Civil Aviation Authority now must grant operators permission to fly UAVs. The government was also worried that images collected by drones of historic artifacts “could be misused later,” the Indo Asian News Service reported.

In general, legislation and practices have not kept up with the evolution of the technology, experts say. “Humanitarian organizations should engage in networks that promote good practices and guidance, and that can serve as a source of surge capacity,” according to the findings of a June 2014 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Meier’s Humanitarian UAV Network and other aid groups have been working to better coordinate and manage drone use for nonmilitary purposes. His network, also known as UAViators, is working to develop a code of conduct and best practices for using drones for humanitarian relief, according to the group’s website, The UAViators train volunteer drone operators and connect them with aid groups.

More work remains to establish and enforce conduct codes. Meier and other groups continue to push for responsible use of UAVs. “This is where smart, informed policy is especially critical,” Peter Rabley, property rights director of a philanthropic investment firm known as the Omidyar Network, told in July 2015. “We look forward to engaging with the global community in a measured, even-handed conversation about how we parse the legitimate ethical and legal considerations that drones have uncovered.”