Drones In Emergencies and Humanitarian Crises

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The Role Drones Can Play In Emergencies and Humanitarian Crises

Only a few years ago if you heard the word “drone” you would have immediately identified this with wars, attacks on terrorists and spying. We often saw news footage on the television about drone strikes against the Taliban and more recently Daesh.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) or Drones were first used by the military in the Balkans war. Their use increased significantly during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and fall into two categories; surveillance/reconnaissance and drones armed with missiles and bombs.

In the last few years, as reliability and technology have improved and costs have fallen drones are being used increasingly in the commercial sector. It’s becoming more commonplace to see drones being used in a wide variety of industries and this trend is only set to increase.

But drones are also rapidly emerging as a tool to be used in humanitarian crises. At the moment many countries do not have a regulatory framework for drones or those that do have regulations severely limit the use of drones and do not include provisions for emergencies.

The Global Drone Regulations Database https://www.droneregulations.info is a country directory with summaries of national drone laws as public general information. In 2015-2016 it was enhanced by FSD with funding provided by DG ECHO.

The EU-ECHO funded research Drones in Humanitarian Action undertaken by FSD, CartONG, UAViators and the Zoi Environment Network over a two year period, have researched how UAV’s can have an impact in humanitarian crises and what organisations should consider before using them.

Read it here http://drones.fsd.ch/en/drones-in-humanitarian-action/




As drone technology has advanced and their reliability improved, the use of drones to aid operations in disaster relief is increasing.

Used as a standalone tool or in conjunction with aircraft, helicopters and satellites to gather information quickly are crucial to getting aid/relief to the affected areas.

Assessing the scale of the disaster and the seriousness of a humanitarian crisis can often be time critical when lives are at risk. Being able to gather the necessary data quickly is vital and the use of drones can only assist in collecting data and ultimately saving lives. Succinctly drones are excellent tools for emergency relief.


Areas in which drones are and could be used for humanitarian crises include:



Mapping drones have been used to make accurate, two dimensional maps, elevation models and 3D models of terrain. Using a drone for mapping has shown significant advantages compared to other methods, for example in poor weather conditions. Satellites, airplanes and helicopters are the three most commonly used alternatives to drones in aerial mapping and are not considered opposing methods. These tools can be complementary and can strengthen the quality of data when used together. However, at times drones can be more efficient, for example during the Bosnian floods, when drones proved to be more effective than airplanes/helicopters when mapping small areas of moving minefields.

Satellite imagery provides low resolution imagery over larger areas but the weather can hamper this if there is heavy cloud cover. In these instances drones can be vital as they can fly under the cloud or if ultra-high resolution is required then drones can provide this.


Cargo Delivery

Cargo delivery is a rapidly emerging field but the technology has not yet evolved sufficiently to transport heavy loads required during emergencies. Most drone models are still prototypes under development. It is expected that commercial logistics operators like Amazon and DHL will be lead the way in developing drones which will fulfil these requirements. Currently Cargo delivery by manned aircraft is often the only option following major disasters. Drones could offer the solution of transporting smaller payloads frequently across shorter distances thus complementing the traditional means.

With regard to transportation of medicines and vaccines, poor “last mile” delivery logistics caused by damaged or unreliable ground infrastructure, road blockages due to landslides and flooding or restricted access due to security issues can often prevent successful delivery. Drones could play a vital role in last mile delivery.


Search & Rescue

Drones have been developed to work alongside Search and Rescue (SAR) teams. Drones provide aerial information to the SAR team improving the time to rescue.

Using a drone can have advantages for various reasons. For example; rescue crews can stay safe while they use a drone to get a bird’s eye view of a disaster zone and cut response times for natural disasters such as landslides, avalanches, earthquakes and floods.

Rescue teams can then safely assess the situation and make plans whilst viewing live camera footage from a safe distance in areas which are fraught with danger, this limits the risk of injury to rescue teams.



Using drones for real-time information such as live video fees streamed directly from the drone to the operation, could be an area in which drones could be beneficial. Particular areas of interest are:

• Tracking and identifying displaced populations, their movements and temporary settlements
• Large scale assessments in affected regions or remote and inaccessible areas
• Monitoring logistics convoys in real time.

The use of drones in monitoring is still developing and is still viewed as controversial given the links to the military.

Drones are a tool and not a solution to any of the vast problems humanitarians constantly face. Drones are a rapidly developing technology but the humanitarian community has limited experience in their use. Over the next few years working together will be the key to successfully implementing drones in a humanitarian capacity.


Satellites v Drones

Satellites have been used for decades to obtain imagery and have played a pivotal role in relief operations. As useful as satellites have been they do have limitations which include cost, data sharing restrictions and the time needed to acquire images. In addition, imagery is often at a lower resolution and may be impaired due to heavy cloud cover.

Drones are less expensive to deploy, they do not have data sharing restrictions, images can be obtained quickly and have a much higher resolution. If there is heavy cloud, a drone can easily fly under the clouds to obtain the images.

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