Aerial robots (or UAVs) represent the first wave of robotics to impact the humanitarian space. Thus far, this first wave has largely been characterized by the application of relatively new technologies in one-off deployments. This needs to change. We must shift towards more persistent and autonomous solutions. This applies equally to the use of aerial robots for data collection as it does to the use of said robots for the transportation of payloads.
By “persistent” I mean UAV platforms that are far more durable and robust. It is all fine and well to fly a UAV a few dozen times in favorable weather. That’s elementary. It is far less trivial to develop UAVs that can successfully operate for thousands of flight hours in unfavorable weather conditions. By “autonomous” I mean UAV platforms that are pre-programmed and equipped with collision avoidance technology. This allows the platforms to operate autonomously with less need for human intervention. The real revolution around robotics in general is not robotics per se but rather robotics-powered-by-artificial-intelligence, which increasingly allows mobile robots to operate autonomously. In contrast, the manual operation of UAVs very much limits the value they can add to humanitarian efforts. What’s more, the leading cause of accidents in both manned and unmanned aviation is attributable to pilot error.
Humanitarian organizations exploring the use of aerial robotics should make sure to raise questions around persistent and autonomous solutions in their discussions with UAV partners. This second wave of robotics is at most a ripple at the moment, so it is important to manage expectations. But this next wave is also inevitable. So the sooner humanitarian organizations start addressing the importance of both persistent and autonomous solutions, the earlier we can scale the positive impact of aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics across a wide range of humanitarian efforts.