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Drones for Good: 4 Lessons from SXSW Interactive



Sentinel Project Drones in Kenya PAINt
Working directly with local communities in Kenya, drones are helping prevent violence by stopping the spread of rumors. Photo courtesy of Sentinel Project.

The view of small unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” has evolved quickly in the past two years from objects of fear or hobbyist fascination to the forefront of global discussions of how to improve humanitarian operations. Emerging applications range from high-resolution digital mapping to rapid situational awareness to potentially enormous changes in how we distribute essential relief goods to remote and disaster-impacted areas.

I had the opportunity to convene a panel on this topic last week at the annual SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, TX, featuring my Humanitarian UAV Working Group colleagues who include Patrick Meier (UAViators), Kate Chapman (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap) and Chris Fabian (UNICEF Innovations). Four main insights emerged the discussion:

In Guyana, the indigenous Wapichana community built a drone from scratch to monitor flooding and natural hazards to their region. Photo courtesy of Digital Democracy.
In Guyana, the indigenous Wapichana community built a drone from scratch to monitor flooding and natural hazards to their region. Photo courtesy of Digital Democracy.

1. Drones are not what most people think they are

Contrary to the outdated view of drones either as military equipment or high-tech consumer gear, the technology is quickly being adopted by communities, public services and international organizations struggling to find better ways to solve intractable social and ecological problems.

The global landscape of humanitarian drones is broader than most would imagine. Patrick Meier cited far-ranging examples, from rural Papua New Guinea, where villagers are building and operating their own drones with off-the-shelf parts to monitor land use, to southern Africa, where anti-poaching organizations in running routine flights to survey protected areas and deploying smart algorithms to detect and identify changes in wildlife populations, to small Bhutanese medical facilities pioneering autonomous vaccine and diagnostic distribution systems.

2. Potential to revolutionize humanitarian operations

Imagine micro-swarms of autonomous aerial vehicles able to expand the field of operational intelligence dramatically for all manner of humanitarian actors, and semi-autonomous networks of aerial distribution to remote areas. That’s exactly the vision laid out by UNICEF’s Chris Fabian. In order for that vision to gain legitimacy and genuine effectiveness, Chris emphasized the central importance of open standards across the entire technical ecosystem, from data standards to flight controls to open hardware design.

In Namibia, drones are used to monitor wildlife. Photo courtesy of Drone Adventures.
In Namibia, drones are used to monitor wildlife. Photo courtesy of Drone Adventures.

3. Open-source is an absolute must

Without strong open source standards and data sharing protocols, the global field of humanitarian drones risks fragmentation, over-dependency on commercial solutions and failure to maximize the public impact of the impending flood of new aerial imagery.

Demonstrating the critical importance of open standards and shared data to the evolution of the technology for humanitarian purposes, Kate Chapman previewed the new Open Aerial Map project from HOT-OSM. The Open Aerial Map project aims to build a massive, open-source collection of aerial imagery, which can be used by the crowdsource mapping community for essential cartographic projects during disasters relief and humanitarian scenarios.

4. The future of humanitarian drones

Looking forward, we are likely to see hybrid commercial and DIY projects emerging from a range of communities. Costs are dropping and connectivity is increasing throughout the world. While the discussion of humanitarian UAVs right now may be centering on the role of international agencies and the crowdsource mapping community, in the future we are likely to see much more of the kinds of examples that Patrick Meier described, where local communities and forward-thinking individuals, at times in the unlikeliest of places, figure out on their own where this new technology is heading.


Our role as NGOs in the international community may increasingly focus not on technology transfer and project implementation, so much as on how to listen attentively to what is happening in the communities we’re trying to assist, so that we’re able to act through emerging technologies as better partners and more effective collaborators. That’s a lesson we can all probably take to heart for the future of a great many things, not just humanitarian drones.

View the panel discussion below:

This article originally appeared in the NetHope Solutions Center Blog. 

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