Tag Archives: Misconceptions

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/OSM.fr 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.

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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]

Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs

Update: I just realized after reading Helena Puig Larrauri’s excellent post on UAVs for conflict prevention that my post below does not explicitly state that I’m only responding to misconceptions related to UAV-use in response to natural hazards, not armed or violent conflict.

Superficial conversations on the challenges and opportunities of using UAVs in humanitarian settings reveal just how many misconceptions remain on the topic. This is admittedly due to the fact that humanitarian UAVs are a relatively recent innovation. There are of course legitimate and serious concerns around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. But superficial conversations tend to obfuscate intelligent discourse on what the potential solutions to these challenges might be.


I would thus like to address some of the more common misconceptions in the hopes that we can move beyond the repetitive, superficial statements that have been surfacing in recent discussions on humanitarian UAVs. This will hopefully help improve the quality of discourse on the topic and encourage more informed conversations.

  • UAVs are expensive: Yes, military drones cost millions of dollars. But small, civilian UAVs range from a few hundred dollars to the price of a small car.  The fixed-wing UAV used by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Haiti and by Medair in the Philippines cost $20,000. Contrast this to UN Range Rovers that cost over $50,000. The rotary-wing UAV (quadcopter) purchased by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian (OCHA) costs $1,200 (the price of a laptop). The one pictured above now costs around $500. (And balloon mapping costs even less). Like other technologies, UAVs are clearly becoming cheaper every year, which is why they’re increasingly used in humanitarian settings.
  • UAVs are limited in range: So are cars. In other words, whether UAVs are “too limited” depends on what their intended use is. Small, fixed-wing UAVs have a flight time of about an hour while small rotary-wing UAVs typically remain airborne for half-an-hour (on 1 battery). Naturally, more expensive UAVs will have longer flight-times. For targeted damage assessments, current ranges are easily manageable with several batteries. With one team and a few batteries, IOM covered 45 square kilometers in 6 days of flying. As more groups use UAVs in humanitarian settings, the opportunities to collaborate on flight plans and data sharing will necessarily expand both range and coverage. Then again, if all I need is 25 minutes of flight-time to rapidly assess disaster damage in rural village, then a rotary-wing UAV is a perfect fit. And if I bring 5 batteries along, I’ll have more than two hours’ worth of very high-resolution imagery.
  • UAVs are dangerous: Cars cause well over 1 million deaths every year. There are safe ways to use cars and reckless ways, regardless of whether you have a license. The same holds true for UAVs: there are safety guidelines and best practices that need to be followed. Obviously, small, very light-weight UAVs pose far less physical danger than larger UAVs. Newer UAVs also include a number of important fail-safe mechanisms and automated flight-plan options, thus drastically reducing pilot error. There is of course the very real danger of UAVs colliding with piloted-aircraft. At the same time, I for one don’t see the point of flying small UAVs in urban areas with complex airspaces. I’m more interested in using UAVs in areas that have been overlooked or ignored by international relief efforts. These areas are typically rural and hard to access; they are not swarmed by search and rescue helicopters or military aircraft delivering aid. Besides as one UAV expert recently noted at a leading UAV conference, the best sense-and-avoid systems (when flying visual line-of-site) are your eyes and ears. Helicopters and military aircraft are loud and can be heard from miles away. If you or your spotter hear and/or see them, it takes you 10 seconds to drop to a safer altitude. In any event, flying UAVs near airports is pure idiocy. Risks (and idiocy) cannot be eliminated, but they can be managed. There are a number of protocols that provide guidance on the safe use of UAVs such as the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct and Operational Check-List available here. In sum, both education and awareness-raising are absolutely key.
  • UAVs are frightening: Compare the UAV pictured above with UN military helicopters and aircraft. What looks more scary? Talk to any UAV professional who actually has experience in flying small UAVs in developing countries and virtually all will tell you that their UAVs are almost always perceived as toys by both kids and adults alike. CartONG & OSM who use UAVs for community mapping note that UAVs in Haiti bring communities together. Meanwhile, SkyEye and partners in the Philippines use the excitement that UAVs provoke in kids to teach them about science,  maths and aeronautics. Do the kids in the picture above look scared to you? This doesn’t mean that process—reassurance, awareness raising & community engagement— isn’t important. It simply means that critics who play on fear to dismiss the use of UAVs following natural disasters don’t know what they’re talking about; but they’re great at “Smart Talk”.
  • UAVs are not making a difference: This final misconception is simply due to ignorance. Humanitarian UAVs are already a game-changer. Anyone who follows this space will know that UAVs have already made a difference in Haiti, Philippines and in the Balkans, for example. Their use in Search and Rescue efforts have already saved lives. As such, critics who question the added value of humanitarian UAVs don’t know what they’re talking about. Acquiring and analyzing satellite imagery after a disaster still takes between 48-72 hours. And if clouds are lingering after a major Typhoon, for example, then humanitarians have to wait several days longer. In any event, the resulting imagery is expensive and comes with a host of data-sharing restrictions. These limitations explain why disaster responders are turning to UAVs. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need more evidence of impact (and failure), we certainly do since this is still a new space. But suggesting that there is no evidence to begin with is precisely the kind of ignorance that gets in the way of intelligent discourse.

I hope we can move beyond the above misconceptions and discuss topics that are grounded in reality; like issues around legislation, coordination, data privacy and informed consent, for example. We’ll be focusing on these and several other critical issues at the upcoming “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” co-organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which is being held in November at UN Headquarters in New York.

My advocacy around the use of humanitarian UAVs should obviously not be taken to suggest that UAVs are the answer to every and all humanitarian problems; UAVs, like other novel technologies used in humanitarian settings, obviously pose a number of risks and challenges that need to be managed. As always, the key is to accurately identify and describe the challenge first; and then to assess potential technology solutions and processes that are most appropriate—if any—while keeping in mind the corner stone principle of Do No Harm.


  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]