Reflections on the First UN Expert Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs

UAV post photo - aeryon_scout_in_flight

The first-ever meeting of the United Nations (UN) expert advisory group on humanitarian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) met Thursday at the UN headquarters in New York City.  I was joined with colleagues from UN-OCHA, UNHCR, UNICEF, American Red Cross, the UAViators network, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, DanOfficeIT, Google Project Wing and others.

Using UAVs to Inform Relief & Development

International humanitarianism is fast approaching the moment when remotely sensed data – or the science of obtaining information about objects or areas from a distance, typically from aircraft or satellites – stretches ubiquitously throughout disaster relief and development operations. UAVs are on the cusp of that change, with implications for a significant range of Direct Relief’s operations and analytics.

Satellite imagery already informs programmatic activity, from post-disaster assessment to studies of slum growth to vegetation, water and soil analysis for food security planning. Often, however, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies alike find themselves in need of higher resolution, lower-altitude imagery than may be available for certain areas or time frames from satellite providers, or a broader array of sensors, or the ability to create three-dimensional models of key points of interest such as damaged structures.  Each of these tasks, and many others, can be performed effectively by UAVs.

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Thinking Through the Implications of UAV Use in Humanitarian Activities

Over the next 18-24 months, UAVs are poised to be deployed into a wide range of humanitarian activities in many different parts of the world.  Right now is the moment to think through not only the theoretical implications but also the many practical questions associated with UAVs, including: technology procurement, training, image analysis, data integration, and emergent legal and regulatory issues.

Key areas of conversation included:

  • collection of use cases to determine the scope of demand for humanitarian UAVs
  • outlining of privacy concerns
  • certification and training for piloting and analytics
  • insurance and liability questions
  • direct community participation in UAV-based mapping and image production
  • data security for high-granularity image data
  • ethics, human rights and the establishment of a community-wide code of conduct
  • specific issues pertaining to UAVs in conflict zones
  • using UAVs to deliver essential health care and relief goods to areas with poor or damaged transport infrastructure

By the end of the day, we forged a stronger understanding among the various stakeholders about the scale of the issues at hand, the types of interests to be represented, and the nature of the agenda for at least the short- and medium-term future. New training and research opportunities will be upcoming, as well as a range of presentations, discussion forums and publications on all aspects of the humanitarian UAV landscape.

Through the Nethope UAV working group, my own participation in various public forums, and early experimental forays into UAV support for humanitarian activities, the next 18-24 months should be a very exciting time to participate in the development and maturation of an important new field of humanitarian technology.