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How To Ethically Use Drones in International Development?

By Denise Phelps on January 9, 2015


Drones use in humanitarian and international development projects are controversial. Reflecting this reality, the recently released UN policy brief cautions practitioners to consider the potential ramifications of their use. It suggests basing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) use on its ability to provide a “unique capability” to a project, thereby holding drones to the same standards for utilizing military assets during a project.


The recommendations are not unique to humanitarian work but can be used to guide the incorporation of drones into any development project. Key takeaways of the brief mirrored topics that were discussed during the IREX Tech Deep Dive on Drones earlier this year, including the need for:

  • Community engagement
  • Transparency for data usage
  • Abiding local laws and regulations
  • Flight safety plans

In addition to the UN, the UAViator network and other groups are conducting research and developing best practices for using drones in humanitarian efforts to help guide project standards and inform policy.

What Happens as Drone Technology Outpaces Policy and Social Research?

Small drones that weigh no more than a few kilograms are more commonly used in development contexts due to their cost and ease of transport. WHO is utilizing drones to transport medical supplies, such as vaccinations, to rural areas. The drones would be following regular routes and presumably be supported by Community Health workers.

Broader application of drones has been limited by shorter flying times and concerns about safety. These technological limitations also make it easier to monitor flight plans and engage local communities since the controllers are never very far the drone itself.

Yet advances in drone technology are happening quickly and will expand the potential uses in international development. A group at MIT has developed a way to extend drone flight to four consecutive days, while also reducing the risk of crashing. Also, Google, Facebook, and other companies with no humanitarian experience are looking at using drones in their own development initiatives.

Many emergency situations will also provide a “unique capability” justification for the use of drones, so how do organizations make the judgment call between potential costs versus benefits?

The rapid increase in capabilities of low-cost drones, is going to quickly outpace the already minimal policies and regulations that exist in most developing countries. Thereby increasing pressure on organizations to use drones in disaster and conflict situations before substantive research is capable of analyzing possible outcomes.

In fact, while the UN policy brief cautioned about using drones in conflict situations until more research can been conducted, UN peacekeeping missions have already used drones in conflict settings to monitor rapid populations movements around conflict zones. As Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meyer point out, using drones in peace building and conflict prevention is fraught with danger

How Do You Inform and Engage Communities at a Distance?


Practitioners should begin thinking through how they will continue following best practices such as community engagement and flight planning procedures, as drones become a regular tool of the trade.

If one of the most important components of humanitarian work with drones is engaging the communities, then how do we continue following these guidelines when the access to an area is so limited that it prevents conventional vehicle access? How do you engage communities and ensure that you are informing people of the intent and purpose of the mission when you are physically disconnected from them?

In circumstances where situations on the ground are changing rapidly and up-to-date information is needed, drones have the ability to provide fast detailed information. In situations of natural disaster, tweet analysis has been used to provide location information of down bridges and other infrastructure damage. These locations were then observed using drones to build a more complete picture of the site. Similar tactics have been used for monitoring the Ebola outbreak and mapping the spread of the disease.

However, disease epidemics and disaster situations won’t have the ability for the same levels of planning and community engagement. Can already present technology serve as a bridge between communities and humanitarian groups in these situations? Is there a way to incorporate community feedback into drone programs? We can and should use every tool that we have to make sure that communities understand and welcome drone use, even in emergencies.

Drones Are Coming. Let Us Be Prepared.

Drones are becoming an important part of humanitarian work, and we need to begin thinking through how we are going to effectively utilize them in the future, and what rules and standards will govern them. Its important to define how this technology is going to be used and not wait for a technology giant like Google to make those decisions for us.

Finally, let’s look ahead not just at drones but at the expansion of technology in development as a whole and ways new technology can be combined to support more robust programs.

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Written by
Denise Phelps is an international health communication and ICT4D consultant.
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