Reflections on the Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently sent me this article written by Alyoscia D’Onofrio (their Senior Director for Governance & Rights Programs) who kindly invited me to comment. So I’ll first summarize his key points and will then add my own commentary. As always, I very much welcome feedback from iRevolution readers.

IRC fake logo

Alyoscia is understandably concerned about some of the negative ways that UAVs could be perceived by crisis-affected communities, especially given the “increasingly blurred lines between aid and military actors over the last two decades.” While he calls OCHA’s recent Policy Brief on humanitarian UAVs a “useful summary of many issues that humanitarian agencies need to consider,” he directly questions the brief’s policy recommendation that UAVs be used in response to natural hazards rather than in conflict settings. The IRC’s Senior Director argues that the added value of UAVs is far more obvious “in fragile, crisis-affected settings” faced with “natural-hazard induced disasters.” Indeed, “Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy drones if there is a strong, responsive state?” asks Alyoscia.

The author doesn’t buy the policy brief’s “suggested approaches to disassociating humanitarian from military drone use in the policy brief,” like painting UAVs in bright colors. These suggestions “border on the silly” according to Alyoscia, who cites this book on conflict resolution and international intervention to argue that “people affected by crises have a hard time distinguishing among humanitarian actors or, more worryingly, between humanitarian and UN military actors,” even those these have different “colored cars, logos, flags, building signs, T-shirts, etc.” According to Alyoscia, “This draws attention to a really important point: While we may agonize over [the above issues], the real issue is about how the people we aim to serve, work with, move past and live near perceive us. Investing time (and money) in understanding our clients’ needs, wants and desires as well as broader social perceptions of our presence and actions, remains a critical imperative in humanitarian interventions.”

In conclusion, Alyoscia writes that “The potential for misunderstanding is extremely high and should be the focus of serious attention for any agency wanting to move forward in deploying this technology.”

My Commentary

Given Alyoscia’s strong emphasis on perception as “the real issue” and his deep concern about the very high probability for misunderstandings, I was surprised to see no reference in his article to community-centered approaches (even if only in one sentence, one hyperlink or one footnote). This explains my first response to his blog post:

To which Alyoscia replied:

Actually, I shared the Haiti example because it was not referenced in the Policy Brief. The UAV project was launched after the bulk of the report had already been written. (The Policy Brief does mention this grassroots UAV project carried out by SkyEye in the Philippines, however). One reason I emphasized the Haiti project was to demonstrate that community engagement is absolutely key in raising awareness about UAVs and managing perceptions. This lowers the risk of misunderstandings; almost entirely (?) if local communities fly their own UAVs and analyze the resulting imagery themselves, which is the main impetus behind the project in Port-au-Prince.

Credit: CartONG/ Video

There’s no reason why the use of UAVs is incompatible with spending time & money to better understand community needs, wants and desires along with perceptions. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) makes this perfectly clear vis-a-vis their UAV projects (as documented in OCHA’s Policy Brief). As I’ve noted previously, the UAV is simply another tool in the tool box for community mapping projects—otherwise known as Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS). With that, let me turn to Alyoscia’s blog post.

Alyoscia opens with the following:

Let’s try a little word association game:

I say… “drone.”

You say… “humanitarian assistance.”


The word drone brings to mind military uses for most of us. But so did satellites (think Sputnik) and aerial imagery (think Cuban Missile Crisis) during the Cold War. Today, however, when most of us think about satellite imagery, we think about Google Maps or Google Earth rather than Mutually-Assured-Destruction. Point is, perceptions are not static, they change as technologies spill over into the civilian sector and become more democratized.

OCHA’s Policy Brief discourages the use of UAVs in conflict zones, a point that the IRC’s Senior Director evidently questions. But the reason OCHA makes this recommendation is precisely because of the complex issues that Alyoscia later raises around perceptions and the blurring of aid and military actors. So I’m puzzled by this critique. I’m also not sure what to do with this rhetorical question: “Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy drones if there is a strong, responsive state?” Surely one could also ask: “Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy themselves, satellite imagery, mobile phones and [insert your favorite item here] if there is a strong, responsive state?”

In any event, the question overlooks the fact that UAVs are already proving to be useful—regardless of whether they’re used in strong or weak states. The Brief’s case studies demonstrate the added value that UAVs have already had in disaster preparedness preparedness, response and also recovery. More recent examples include these missions in the Balkans following the flooding earlier this summer and also these in China after the earthquake in Ludian last month. But Alyoscia’s reflections focus exclusively on the use of UAVs in conflict zones, which OCHA clearly describes as problematic. So there is no disagreement there. On a related note, this aerial video of Gaza taken by a Palestinian-based production company after the Israeli shelling of Al-Shejaiya may be of interest; the video has well over a quarter of a million views on YouTube. Alyoscia does not consider the role of local professional journalists in his reflections on humanitarian UAVs.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 2.22.05 PM

As for the UN’s “silly” suggestion on ways to disassociate humanitarian UAVs from military ones, it may help to quote directly from the original report to provide some context:

“The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association in the UK has suggested that civilian UAVs be painted bright colors to distinguish them from military vehicles. Using this principle, medical deliveries across battle-lines in an urban environment could be cleared with parties to the conflict, and then carried out with a brightly-marked, low-flying UAV. However, it is unclear whether this strategy would work, and it is likely that UAVs in conflict settings would currently pose more problems than they solve.”

The book that Alyoscia draws on to substantiate his concerns does not focus on responses to natural hazards but rather on interventions in conflict zones. This obviously doesn’t mean that Alyoscia’s genuine concerns about the use of UAVs in conflict settings aren’t warranted, they absolutely are. These same concerns (which I certainly share) have been raised before in a number of papers and articles. Furthermore, the challenge around the sharing of military intelligence with humanitarians predates the rise of UAVs. But arguing, as Alyoscia does, that UAVs offer comparatively little value when it comes to natural hazards is simply not supported by the empirical evidence; this evidence also contradicts the argument that strong states do not need UAVs.

So using these (problematic) arguments to suggest that UAVs would have more value in complex emergencies and then faulting OCHA for discouraging the use of UAVs in conflict zones is perhaps a tad unfair. And then focusing on all the problems associated with the use of UAVs in conflict zones (perceptions, security, blurred lines, etc.) to make a general point about the dangers of using UAVs (conflating conflict & non-conflict zones) doesn’t seem right either. Again, this does not imply that Alyoscia’s reflections are not important, they are and we need to discuss these challenges. This is one of the reasons I founded the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), to engage in these important policy conversations and craft practical, legal & ethical solutions. We will be discussing these and other issues at the upcoming “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” co-organized by OCHA & UAViators this November at UN Headquarters.

In the meantime, sincere thanks to both Alyoscia and the IRC for sharing these important reflections. (And kudos to the IRC for blogging!). I hope other groups will engage in these conversations and take the opportunity to share potential & actionable solutions since the challenges have already been articulated. There also seems to be sufficient convergence on which of these problems represent the most important & pressing priorities. So lets start to shift the conversations on humanitarian UAVs to solutions-oriented discourse rather than repeating the well-known challenges.


See Also:

  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Google Already Developing UAV’s for Disaster Response [link]
  • WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies [link]
  • TripAdvisor for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]

4 responses to “Reflections on the Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions

  1. Hi Patrick,

    I feel that you have significantly misunderstood and misrepresented my arguments (is that why this post is tagged with ‘misconceptions’? 😉

    In any case, I’ve posted a response:



    • Hi Alyoscia,

      Many thanks for taking the time to clarify, I will be sure to share your response with several colleagues who also misunderstood your arguments. And I’m glad to read that we’re also in agreement. As I clearly noted 3 times throughout my blog post, your concerns are absolutely warranted. I also clearly stated that I shared your concern. It is precisely because of our shared concerns that I emphasized community-based projects as this addressed some of the issues you quite rightly raised. What I simply wasn’t able to follow was the logic and flow of your article. It really did come across to some of us that you were saying UAVs have more value in conflict zones and then raised all the problems with using them in conflict zones only to come to the overarching conclusion about the general use of drones (regardless of whether they’re used in conflict zones or not). In any event, I’ll be sure to email your clarification to several colleagues.

      Thanks again for taking the time to clarify and expand on your points. I’ve got a longer blog post on “UAVS for Peacebuilding & Conflict Prevention” coming out and can only hope to get from others the kind of insightful and informative response that you have kindly taken the time to provide in your follow up blog post to mine.

      Here’s to writing with more clarity and to giving the benefit of the doubt.


  2. Pingback: Game of Drones | Human Wrongs Watch

  3. Pingback: Game of Drones | From the Trenches World Report

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