Project Management Institute

Drone aid

unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly being used for humanitarian purposes - but stakeholders still tend to think of them as sky planes


A drone helps survey damage in Sankhu, Nepal after an earthquake.


US$14 billion Projected spending for global UAV production by 2025 28%
Civil/consumer UAV market share in 2015. Military is 72%
US$4 billion
Spending for global UAV production in 2015

       Source: Teal Group

The word “drone” is starting to evoke more than warfare. During the past three years, drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—have gained attention as do-gooders. They're being used to search for missing people, survey natural disaster sites and monitor endangered animal populations. But because the military association is still so strong, project teams have to overcome significant stakeholder concerns.

Drones to the Rescue?

After Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti in 2012, the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) undertook a project that used UAVs to help survey the disaster area. Within days of the hurricane, the team provided data on the number of collapsed or damaged homes. Drones also performed aerial surveys after the March 2015 cyclone in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu and the earthquake in Nepal the following month.

The next frontier may be using drones to deliver medicine to hard-to-reach locations. For instance, the Humanitarian Emergency Logistics Program aims to send medicine, vaccines and test results from clinics in Ghana to remote areas of the country within half a day. Currently, it can take up to 21 days. Sponsored by the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association and engineering and consulting firm Ausley Associates Inc., the drone delivery system is expected to be fully operational in two years, according to UAS Magazine.

Conservationists hope wildlife can benefit from drone technology, too. In June 2015, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and several partners began a project to test the use of drones and high-resolution 3-D imagery to monitor an endangered black-footed ferret habitat on the Fort Belknap Reservation in the U.S. state of Montana. The project is intended to lower the cost and improve the accuracy of obtaining information about possible habitats. If successful, it can contribute to WWF's goal of restoring, establishing and maintaining the animal's population in the region.


The International Organization for Migration worked with Drone Adventures to survey a disaster area after Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti in 2012.


“This is a new technology, and new technologies don't become mainstreamed in the humanitarian space overnight.”

—Patrick Meier, PhD, Humanitarian UAV Network, Doha, Qatar


Drone Doubts

Despite these applications, the “drones do good” message still faces skepticism, says Patrick Meier, PhD, Doha, Qatar-based founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, which promotes the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

“This is a new technology, and new technologies don't become mainstreamed in the humanitarian space overnight,” he says.

Even Ghana's medicine project raised concerns. “When I first proposed the project of providing these logistics, they [Ghana officials] were a little leery of unmanned systems because all they knew about them was from the press and that they are used for weaponry or spying,” Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, told UAS Magazine. After officials heard more about UAVs’ potential, they agreed to the project.

Sebastian Ancavil, geographic information system officer, IOM, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, helps organize geographical data related to humanitarian assistance for displaced people. He said his drone projects have raised concerns—particularly when the UAVs fly over camps to map those areas and monitor the number of tents.

“We couldn't just come to the area of interest and fly over the population and then leave,” Mr. Ancavil says. “We were working in sensitive places. This population is vulnerable, living in hard conditions.” The images aren't intended to show poverty or to track individuals. But some people in the camps expressed concern that the UAVs could recognize their faces.

That makes communication particularly vital. “To avoid any confusion…we involve the community—local camp leaders, for example,” he says. “And within our team, we determined how to explain the goals of the use of UAVs to the displaced people in the camps.”

Another stakeholder concern, particularly among law enforcement and rescue agencies, is possible interference from drones. “Making sure that a drone hobbyist doesn't fly into or over a search area is one of the UAV industry's biggest hurdles,” says Adam Andrews, Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA. He's a founding member of SAR Drones, an all-volunteer search and rescue organization, and director of operations for Aeroworks Productions LLC, which offers UAV services including search-and-rescue assistance.

Those rogue hobbyists don't necessarily help create goodwill toward drones. In June, as crews battled a large wildfire in California's San Bernardino Mountains in the U.S., a hobby drone was spotted near firefighting planes. The planes had to turn back, halting firefighters' efforts.

Mr. Andrews has one word for anyone who'd like to advance the cause of humanitarian drone projects: communicate. “The more people understand how drones can assist, save time, save money and perform a task safer than manned aircraft, the better.”

Sandra Swanson

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