Humanitarian UAV/Drones in Conflict Zones: Fears, Concerns and Opportunities

My research team and I at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of fears and concerns expressed by humanitarians and others on the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. To do this, we closely reviewed well over 50 different documents, reports, articles, etc., on humanitarian UAVs as part of this applied research project. The motivation behind this research is to better understand the different and overlapping concerns that humanitarian organizations have over the use of non-lethal drones in crises, particularly crises mired by violent conflict.

Resarch Table

The results of this research are available in this open & editable spreadsheet and summarized in the table above. We identified a total of 9 different categories of concerns and tallied the unique instances in which these appear in the official humanitarian reports, articles, papers, studies, etc., that we reviewed. The top 3 concerns are: Military Association, Data Privacy and Consent. We very much welcome feedback, so feel free to get in touch via the comments section below and/or add additional content directly to the spreadsheet. This research will feed into an upcoming workshop that my colleague Kristin Sandvik (on the Advisory Board of UAViators) and I are looking to organize in the Spring of 2015. The workshop will address the most pressing issues around the use of civilian UAVs in conflict zones.

I tend to believe that UAV initiatives like the Syria Airlift Project (video above) can play a positive role in conflict settings. In fact, I wrote about this exact use of UAVs back in 2008 for PeaceWork Magazine (scroll down) and referred to previous (conventional) humanitarian airlift examples from the Berlin Airlift in the 1940’s to the Biafran Airlift in the 1960’s as a basis for remotely piloted aircraft systems. As such, I suggested that UAVs could be used in Burma at the time to transport relief supplies in response to the complex emergency. While fraught with risks, these risks can at times be managed when approached with care, integrity and professionalism, especially if a people-centered, community-based approach is taken, which prioritizes both safety and direct empowerment.

While some humanitarians may be categorically against any and all uses of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones regardless of the circumstances, the fact is that their opinions won’t prevent affected communities and others from using UAVs anyway. More and more individuals will have access to cheaper and cheaper UAVs in the months and years ahead. As a UN colleague noted with respect to the Syria Airlift Project, initiatives like these may well be a sign of things to come. This sentiment is also shared by my colleague Jules Frost at World Vision. See her recent piece entitled: “Eyes in the Sky are Inevitable: UAVs and Humanitarian Response.”


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my research assistants Peter Mosur and Jus Mackinnon for taking the lead in this research.

See also:

  • On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish [link]

3 responses to “Humanitarian UAV/Drones in Conflict Zones: Fears, Concerns and Opportunities

  1. Pingback: UAVs and peacebuilding: Some thoughts | ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace)

  2. Worked as humanitarian in several armed-conflict areas. I agree with the conclusions/it would be very risky. It is already difficult to be seen as a neutral and impartial organization in such areas. Using UAVs in these zones will create many more allegations on spying and maybe even pressure from the soldiers to provide the datas.
    Even if the UAVs will be more widely used, I doubt it would change over this decade:
    – several conflicts are in poor countries/regions, far from usnig drones for several reasons
    – likely mindsets change during a war. Even if people are used to seeing/playing with drones during peaceful times, they still could be seen as a spying devices during an armed-conflict.

  3. Pingback: Humanitarian UAVs in conflict zones: Fears, concerns and opportunities — Responsible Data Forum

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