A Practical Introduction to UAVs for NGOs

The New America Foundation and Omidyar Network recently published an important primer on how NGOs across multiple sectors can begin to leverage UAVs (or drones). Entitled, “Drones and Aerial Observation: New Technologies for Property Rights, Human Rights & Global Development,” this new publication (PDF) is highly recommended to NGOs seeking to better understand the in’s and out’s of this new technology. UAVs represent the first wave of robotics to be used in the NGOs space. It is incumbent on us to both anticipate and channel the transformative impact that these aerial robots will inevitably have in order to lead by example and thereby inform the safe, responsible and effective use of this new technology. As per AmeriCare’s recent tweet about UAVs: “Technology can disrupt, destroy or transform. Our choice.”

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The UAV industry is expected to grow to $11.5 billion annually within 10 years. In the meantime, “governments worldwide are wrestling in real time with exactly how to react to this democratization of technology and information, particularly in the areas of surveillance and privacy. This is where smart, informed public policy is especially critical. It is imperative that we balance the rights of citizens with legitimate privacy and security concerns. The only way this will happen is if we set up an open, fair and transparent exchange of ideas—something we hope that this Primer will enable.”

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Perhaps what I value the most about this primer is the simple language it uses to explain what UAVs are, what they can do, and how. See in particular Chapter 1 on what UAVs can do, and Chapter 4 on how to make maps with UAVs. If you only have time to read one chapter, then definitely read Chapter 4. Chapter 2 focuses on community participation, consent and data sharing; worth reading Kate Chapman’s comments on that chapter. Chapter 3 addresses the thorny issue of regulations. The primer also features important case-studies on how UAVs are used across different sectors. For example, Chapter 5, “Mapping in Practice,” highlights multiple real-world uses of mapping UAVs, ranging from community and cadastral mapping to archaeological and conservation mapping. 

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Chapter 6 is the one I wrote, documenting recent uses of UAVs in humanitarian disasters along with key use-cases and lessons learned. In closing, I briefly introduce the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which is the only global initiative that actively promotes the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The Network champions a dedicated Code of Conduct to raise awareness about best practices and humanitarian principles. This is especially important given that an increasing number of  the  “disaster tourists” and “citizen journalists” are already experimenting with UAVs in disaster zones. UAViators is thus taking pro-active steps to educate amateur pilots rather than waiting for mistakes to be made.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the use of UAVs for conservation & human rights respectively. While the chapter on human rights is more hypothetical and speculative than others, it contains insightful interviews with several experts from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. One such interviewee, Daniel Gilman, is rather skeptical about the use of UAVs to deter armed groups from committing human rights abuses: “I’m not convinced so much about the deterrent effect of drones. Just because I think people are assholes.” The final chapters, 8 and 9, address uses of UAVs in archaeology and in peacekeeping operations. Like the use of UAVs for human rights, the use of UAVs in peacekeeping is an area I have also explored.

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Taken together, the real-world focus and accessible language of the 9 chapters really sets this short book apart and certainly fills a void. So if you’re new to UAVs, this primer will definitely help answer your most frequent questions and will go a long way to demystifying this new technology for you. If you’re keen to learn more about humanitarian applications, then I recommend this write-up on “Humanitarian UAV Missions: Towards Best Practices” along with this overview on streamlined workflows. You may also want to visit the resources available at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators).

One response to “A Practical Introduction to UAVs for NGOs

  1. Pingback: Deploying MicroMappers to Tag Live Aerial Video Feeds from UAVs « MicroMappers

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