Developing Guidelines for Humanitarian UAV Missions

New: The revised Code of Conduct and Guidelines are now publicly available as part of an open consultative process that will conclude on October 10th. We thus invite comments on the draft guidelines here (Google Doc). Please note that only feedback provided via this Google Form will be reviewed. We’ll be running an open Webinar on September 16th to discuss the guidelines in more detail.


The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) recently organized a 3-day Policy Forum on Humanitarian UAVs. The mission of UAViators is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian settings. The Forum, the first of it’s kind, was generously sponsored and hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation at their conference center in Bellagio, Italy. The aerial panoramic photograph below was captured by UAV during the Forum.

EricChengBellagio

UAViators brought together a cross-section of experts from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), World Food Program (WFP), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), American Red Cross, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Organization (ECHO), Medair, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, ICT for Peace Foundation (ICT4Peace), DJI, BuildPeace, Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Trilateral Research, Harvard University, Texas A&M, University of Central Lancashire, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Pepperdine University School of Law and other independent experts. The purpose of the Forum, which I had the distinct pleasure of running: to draft guidelines for the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

Five key sets of guidelines were drafted, each focusing on priority areas where policy has been notably absent: 1) Code of Conduct; 2) Data Ethics; 3) Community Engagement; 4) Principled Partnerships; and 5) Conflict Sensitivity. These five policy areas were identified as priorities during the full-day Humanitarian UAV Experts Meeting co-organized at the UN Secretariat in New York by UAViators and OCHA (see summary here). After 3 very long days of deliberation in Bellagio, we converged towards an initial draft set of guidelines for each of the key areas. There was certainly no guarantee that this convergence would happen, so I’m particularly pleased and very grateful to all participants for their hard work. Indeed, I’m reminded of Alexander Aleinikoff (Deputy High Commissioner in the Office of UNHCR) who defines innovation as “dynamic problem solving among friends.” The camaraderie throughout the long hours had a lot to do with the positive outcome. Conferences typically take a group photo of participants; we chose to take an aerial video instead:

Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re done. The most immediate next step is to harmonize each of the guideline documents so that they “speak” to each other. We’ll then solicit internal institutional feedback from the organizations that were represented in Bellagio. Once this feedback has been considered and integrated where appropriate, we will organize a soft public launch of the guidelines in August 2015. The purpose of this soft launch is to actively solicit feedback from the broader humanitarian community. We plan to hold Webinars in August and September to invite this additional feedback. The draft guidelines will be further reviewed in October at the 2015 Humanitarian UAV Experts Meeting, which is being hosted at MIT and co-organized by UAViators, OCHA and the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).

We’ll then review all the feedback received since Bellagio to produce the “final” version of the guidelines, which will be presented to donors and humanitarian organizations for public endorsement. The guidelines will be officially launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. In the meantime, these documents will serve as best practices to inform both humanitarian UAV trainings and missions. In other words, they will already serve to guide the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. We will also use these draft guidelines to hold ourselves accountable. To be sure, humanitarian innovation is not simply about the technology; humanitarian innovation is also about the processes that enable the innovative use of emerging technologies.

While the first text message (SMS) was sent in 1992, it took 20 years (!) until a set of guidelines were developed to inform the use of SMS in disaster response. I’m relieved that we won’t have to wait until 2035 to produce UAV guidelines. Yes, the evidence base for the added value of UAVs in humanitarian missions is still thin, which is why it is all the more remarkable that forward-thinking guidelines are already being drafted. As several participants noted during the Forum, “The humanitarian community completely missed the boat on the mobile phone revolution. It is vital that we not make this same mistake again with newer, emerging technologies.” As such, the question for everyone at the Forum was not whether UAVs will have a significant impact, but rather what guidelines are needed now to guide the impact that this new technology will inevitably have on future humanitarian efforts.

The evidence base is necessarily thin since UAVs are only now emerging as a potential humanitarian technology. There is still a lot of learning and documenting to be done. The Humanitarian UAV Network has already taken on this task and will continue to enable learning and catalyze information sharing by convening expert meetings and documenting lessons learned in collaboration with key partners. The Network will also seek to partner with select groups on strategic projects with the aim of expanding the evidence base. In sum, I think we’re on the right track, and staying on the right track will require a joint and sustained effort with a cross-section of partners and stakeholders. To be sure, UAViators cannot accomplish the above alone. It took 22 dedicated experts and 3 long days to produce the draft guidelines. So consider this post an open invitation to join these efforts as we press on to make the use of UAVs in humanitarian crises safer, more coordinated and more effective.

In the meantime, a big thanks once again to all the experts who joined us for the Forum, and equally big thanks to the team at the Rockefeller Foundation for graciously hosting us in Bellagio.

10 responses to “Developing Guidelines for Humanitarian UAV Missions

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