Drones can provide essential information during a crisis, but launching them is only one move in a complex array of humanitarian concerns.
2017 was the single-most costly year for natural disasters in the United States, with an economic price tag of over $390 billion. In those 12 months, 16 events outpaced the cost of damage wrought in 2005 by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and Dennis combined by over a billion dollars.
The U.S. humanitarian logistics market is on the verge of an unprecedented boom: by 2022, the market is expected to reach $24 billion. As a developed economy with a sound disaster recovery infrastructure that includes an abundance of airports able to handle air cargo shipments, the U.S. is poised to lead the global market for these services.
Researchers at Technavio point to the increasing need for professional logistics services as a key driver in the market’s expansion. They note that a perfect storm of an increased number of natural disasters, an increasingly volatile economy, and constrained funding and resources will continue to push the outsourcing trend forward.
“Logistics companies provide information and communication technology platforms, which help in rescue operations,” said a Technavio senior analyst. “Additionally, NGOs, aid agencies, and governments neither have the required qualified personnel nor have the infrastructure or necessary resources such as trucks to address problems in the supply chain such as the transportation and distribution of relief supplies that need to be carried out after a disaster.”
In addition to the outsourcing push, Technavio’s findings point to the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a major emergent trend in humanitarian logistics that is reshaping the way disaster recovery aid is dispensed. UAVs enable aid workers to remotely move cargo, survey damage, find those in peril, and create high-quality imaging data such as high-resolution risk maps.
Flying Where Humans Dare to Tread
In 2013, humanitarian aid specialist Patrick Meier, PhD was working with the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs in the wake of category 5 Super Tyhpoon Haiyan. One of the strongest typhoons on record, Haiyan decimated the central Philippines, killing at least 6,300 and leaving millions in Southeast Asia without shelter, food, or potable water.
Meier is, among other things, a specialist in crisis geo-mapping and co-founder of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), a volunteer community of translators and digital technicians who facilitate the collection and sharing of real-time information such as tweets to hasten and improve disaster response. DHN is used to track the impact of all kinds of humanitarian disasters, including disease outbreaks, conflict, and displacement.
On the ground in the Philippines, Meier saw that several aid teams were deploying drones, but weren’t sharing the images they collected with local communities or governments. Not only were the groups not coordinated with each other, most weren’t coordinated with other humanitarian agencies working there to provide relief. It became instantly clear to him that the actual deployment of UAVs was only a single step in the process of making a real contribution to the effort—and not necessarily a productive one, at that.
To prevent such wastefully non-communicative chaos from repeating itself, he organized the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), roughed out a single page Code of Conduct, and solicited a bevy of global aid experts for feedback and support.
Thirty organizations, including Harvard University, World Bank, The Rockefeller Foundation, Texas A&M University, Medecins Sans Frontières, and several United Nations agencies contributed to the Code’s creation, which is meant to ensure the ethical use of drones in humanitarian aid. A significant aim of the Code is to increase public confidence in the safety and appropriateness of drone use in humanitarian responses.
According to the introduction to the Code and its guidelines for use, UAV deployments “must observe the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. UAV missions must also be legal, safe, and have adequate insurance. The use of UAVs to support humanitarian action should be carried out for humanitarian purposes only and with the best interest of affected people and communities in mind, and should adhere to the humanitarian imperative of doing no harm.”
Today, UAViators boasts over 3,000 members in 120 countries.
Flying Labs: From Ethics to Effectiveness
Founded in 2016 by Meier, Sonja Betschart, drone designer Adam Klaptocz, and global information systems expert Andrew Schroeder, WeRobotics works across multiple sectors including business, environmental, development, and humanitarian to facilitate the use of AI and robotics for social good.
Furthering Meier’s efforts on the ethical use of drones, WeRobotics works with communities in developing and at-risk countries around the globe to create Flying Labs™ that interweave appropriate robotics solutions into humanitarian initiatives.
From Central and South America to the Himalayas and Africa, these innovation labs help communities build their skills and knowledge, teaming up with technology providers to make robotics accessible for the people who need them most, when they need them. The labs also work with communities to give access to affordable and reliable drone technology.
The company’s AidRobotics program identifies humanitarian logistics needs and teaches local Flying Labs partners relevant skills to enhance their aid efforts. Drones can be particularly effective in what the program leaders describe as “frequent small and medium-sized emergencies that do not trigger international assistance, yet still overwhelm local responders.”
Key to the success of UAV technology in humanitarian logistics is the concept of decentralized, local knowledge.
“Technology that is not localized is technology that is not sustainable,” wrote Meier, Schroeder, and WeRobotics project manager Joel Kaiser. “(T)here is an increasing body of evidence that localization increases impact and improves effectiveness,” they continued. “Data has characteristics that make it fit-for-purpose (or not) in disaster response; drones enable local actors to collect and analyze data that is fit for their purpose. These are the seeds of humanitarian innovation. And the time to start is now.”
Xcellence Humanitarian Award Winners
“As these organizations have shown, unmanned aircraft systems that are typically flown for commercial purposes are also capable of accomplishing vital humanitarian missions,” said Brian Wynne, President and CEO of AUVSI. “With sophisticated on-board cameras and sensors, drones can quickly fly to remote locations or areas that are inaccessible to ground vehicles because of roads blocked by storm debris or flooding.”
Aeryon Labs Inc. “Aeryon deployed SkyRanger drones and two expert pilots to help support the disaster recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Aeryon partnered with the relief organization GlobalMedic to provide aerial intelligence to first responders and international disaster relief teams on the ground. SkyRanger was used to gather aerial intelligence and reconnaissance, as well as to create detailed 2D and 3D maps of the affected areas, so that first responders could prioritize resources and coordinate the most effective response.”
DroneSAR “DroneSAR enables the use of affordable drone technology to expedite search and rescue (SAR) missions when teams are faced with risk, time, and resource constraints. It allows the drone operator to plan, execute and perform search mission’s based on variables including altitude, field-of-view, battery life and probability of detection. DroneSAR enhances situation awareness and first-person-view through its live low latency video streaming. The tracking of multiple drone activities, coordinates, flight status, and mission progress can be relayed to team members and (SAR) coordination centres for immediate operational observation and analysis.”
Nepal Flying Lab “In coordination with Medair, Nepal Flying Labs has mapped the Ramechhap landslide area, one of the largest landslides in Nepal. The information can save lives by precisely identifying vulnerable households and areas. This data will also prove useful as a baseline for similar disasters in the future. We plan to process the data into a format usable by a wide range of organizations involved in disaster prevention and rescue.”
ONG DroneSAR Emergency Response Team and Humanitarian Aid Through the Use of Drones. “We are a group of civilians, active and retired military, rescuers, and firefighters active in and out of the line of fire. Through the use of drones and new technologies we set out to help our country and whoever requires it during the emergency response process, search and rescue, delivering humanitarian aid and post disaster services.”
Zipline International Zipline’s Medical Drone Delivery Operation in Rwanda: “Rwanda saw an opportunity to use Zipline to deliver blood products to 21 transfusing facilities. Together, we launched the world’s first drone delivery system operating at national scale in October 2016.Hospitals used to take multiple hours to pick up blood at a regional center. Now blood is delivered directly to the facility in less than 30 minutes. Ultimately, Rwanda’s vision is to put all 12 million citizens within 30 minutes of any essential medical products.”
Humanitarian Logistics UAV Code of Conduct
- Prioritize safety above all other concerns.
- Identify the most appropriate solution: only operate UAVs when more effective means are not available and when humanitarian purposes are clear.
- Respect the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
- Do no harm: assess and mitigate potential unintended consequences that UAV operations may have on affected communities and humanitarian action.
- Operate with relevant permissions: UAV operations must be in compliance with relevant international and domestic law, and applicable regulatory frameworks including customs, aviation, liability and insurance, telecoms, data protection and others.
- Engage with communities: community engagement is important and obligatory. Developing trust and engaging local communities encourages active partnership, builds local capacities and leadership and enhances the impact of your mission.
- Be responsible: contingency plans should always be in place for unintended consequences. UAV teams must take responsibility for and resolve any issues involving harm to people and property, including liability.
- Coordinate to increase effectiveness: seek out and liaise with relevant local and international actors and authorities. UAV teams must not interfere with and always seek to complement formal humanitarian coordination mechanisms or operations.
- Consider environmental implications: operating UAVs should not pose undue risk to the natural environment and wildlife. UAV operators must take responsibility for any negative environmental impact their mission causes
- Be conflict sensitive: all interventions in conflict zones become part of conflict dynamics and can result in very serious unintended consequences, including the loss of life. Extraordinary caution must be used in deploying UAVs in conflict zones.
- Collect, use, manage and store data responsibly: collect, store, share and discard data ethically using a needs-based approach, applying informed consent where possible and employing mitigation measures where it is not.
- Develop effective partnerships in preparation and for and in response to crises: work with groups that offer complementary skill sets (humanitarian action, UAV operations, local context, data analysis, communications) during, and preferably in advance of crises.
- Be transparent: share flight activities as widely as possible, ideally publicly, as appropriate to the context. Convey lessons or issues to communities, relevant authorities and coordinating bodies as early as possible.
- Contribute to learning: carry out and share any evaluations and after action reviews to inform the betterment of UAV use for humanitarian action.
- Be open and collaborative: coordination is a multi-stakeholder process. This means that lessons learned and best practices on the use and coordination of UAVs in humanitarian settings must remain open and transparent along with any related workshops, trainings and simulations.