When a humanitarian disaster ­occurs, a key consideration is the response time. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have the ability to capture high-quality imagery that can be used for disaster relief in a matter of hours. Satellites, on the other hand, can take up to three days to capture the same images, and at a much lower quality.

Slow response time can be fatal when human life is at risk.

The ability of drones to accelerate the assessment of disaster damage is the reason why communities, in partnership with nongovernmental organisations, are sharing the cost of operating drones following a disaster.

The benefits to using drones are clear and have been demonstrated in a number of humanitarian missions.

The fast data collection capabilities of drones helped create a crisis map of the Hurricane Sandy disaster in Haiti. The data also ­allowed for a population count of the affected communities; there were high numbers of internally displaced people.

Drones have also provided other humanitarian functions, micro-transportation being one. Small parachutes have been attached to drones in Rwanda in order to provide vaccinations and to operate as a “drone delivery ­service”.

While the use of drone technology for humanitarian relief is growing, cases of overuse and improper use of drones have highlighted problems associated with drone technology.

The widespread use of drones in disaster relief has resulted in the publication of a 2015 policy paper by the UN ­Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The paper examines emerging practical, legal, regulatory and ethical issues around the use of drones in support of humanitarian relief and suggests ways to take advantage of drone technology.

OCHA warns that a number of concerns must be addressed, particularly in areas such as safety and liability, ethical partnerships, privacy, and data protection.

In Cambodia’s provincial towns, floods, droughts and storms have continued to destroy people’s livelihoods. International and domestic non-governmental organisations have looked at safely deploying drones to develop emergency preparedness and response plans. The logic behind the scheme is that community resilience will strengthen if individuals are prepared to act when a disaster strikes. Such schemes, however, are often difficult to implement when there are widespread community perceptions that drones may be used for civilian attacks or may have greater capacities than they actually do (the capacity to identity individuals, for example).

OCHA further advises that ethical partnerships should be formed. As the military remains the largest user of drones, organisations must consider the implications of who they work with, particularly in terms of companies that produce weaponised or armed drones.

Together with these concerns, OCHA has raised other concerns about the lack of regulations for commercial or civilian use of drones. The International Civil Aviation Organisation does not yet stipulate regulations for low level operations of drones, only for cross-border operations. Thus, member states are currently formulating their own regulations. This has led to a patchwork of different policies and lack of standardisation across countries.

In many countries it is illegal to fly any object within 5km of a commercial airport. As humanitarian operations often centre around airports, there is a risk of interference and collision with air traffic, potentially causing injury or property damage. Humanitarian organisation, thus, may need to consider liability insurance and the cost implications for mechanical failures.

With often deficient rules regarding the use of drones in force in many countries, greater community engagement and transparency will be required to ensure drones are operated safely for humanitarian missions.

Cultural sensitivities also need to be considered. OCHA has recommended informed consent to the use of drones be obtained from relevant communities, by advising the local community of the timing of various flights, the type of data to be collected, and the purpose of the flight. OCHA also suggests that clear policies are required on what information will be shared or made public, how long information will be stored, and how information will be secured.

OCHA has further recommended that humanitarian organisations ensure they enter into commercial agreements with companies that are in accord with their humanitarian principles.

In order to ensure long-term acceptance of drones, OCHA recommends that humanitarian organisations must comply with all host country regulations and develop appropriate agreements with regulators.

Several organisations exist to educate individuals on the best practices of drone use for humanitarian missions. The Humanitarian UAV Network says it is worthwhile educating local communities about the capabilities of drones for disaster relief so they can be trained and operate the drones themselves.

An international humanitarian UAV code of conduct has also been developed which aims to guide all humanitarian organisations involved in the use of drones to support the delivery of humanitarian assistance in disasters. Acceptance and adherence to the code and related guidelines may well contribute to safety, professionalism and increased public confidence in the use of drones.

Drones may have a significant role to play in disaster relief operations. That role, however, must be informed by regulations and policy at all levels — local, national, regional and international.

Written by David Hodgkinson and Rebecca Johnston. First published in The Australian on 27 April 2018.

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