International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Drones 'R' Us? Reflections on the use of UAVs in humanitarian interventions

Update, September 9, 2014: Please see a new addendum by Alyoscia D'Onofrio below responding to reader comments

Let’s try a little word association game:

I say... “drone.”

You say... “humanitarian assistance.”


You had “highly controversial, sometimes televised means of delivering large amounts of targeted explosive payload at considerable distances, often with significant collateral damage, and generally spurring violent political and/or military reactions”?


Therein lies a major dilemma around the emerging use of UAVs (unmanned or unwomanned aerial vehicles) in humanitarian response situations: We don’t think of tracking the movements of displaced civilians in Congo or carrying out building damage assessments in Haiti — we think of military strikes. Yet aid agencies are exploring the use of UAVs to carry out assessments, track populations of concern and deliver supplies.

This could give rise to all manner of suspicions about the intent of humanitarian actors, particularly when set against the backdrop of increasingly blurred lines between aid and military actors over the last two decades. Soldiers deliver aid. Aid agencies deploy drones. Spot the difference.

These and other considerations are reviewed in UN OCHA’s recent (June 2014) policy brief, "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response." The brief touches on a range of potential concerns which arise from the emerging use of UAVs, from legal issues to questions of ethical procurement and brand association, from privacy and data protection to transparency and informed consent. It’s a useful summary of many issues that humanitarian agencies need to consider before, during and after deploying this new commercially available technology.

Many of these concerns — that they are removed, perceived as threatening and relatively unknown — are not specific to the use of drones, but are simply brought into stark relief by the nature of this data collection medium as compared to more traditional practices. Even so-called innovative, technology-based data collection methods, such as crowd-sourcing via smart phones, seem warm and cuddly compared to drone deployment.

It’s the issue of perception and associated security risks which will probably dominate discussions about whether, where and when to explore using such new technology. The OCHA brief gives some treatment to concerns of being perceived to be (or associated with) military or government-related actors, and suggests that deployment in response to natural disasters rather than in conflict settings is the way to go. Yes, but... if the added value of drones is superior information gathering and/or access capabilities relative to other methods, then isn’t it precisely in fragile, crisis-affected settings that this will be most useful in response to natural hazard-induced disasters? Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy drones if there is a strong, responsive state?

Some of the suggested approaches to disassociating humanitarian from military drone use in the policy brief border on the silly: painting them bright colours, for example. One replaces the spectacle of white 4x4s being repainted aubergine or orange (or yellow and black) to create distance from UN military vehicles with the prospect of a world of multi-coloured flying objects.

The unfortunate thing is, research suggests that people affected by crises (or by aid) have a hard time distinguishing among humanitarian actors or, more worryingly, between humanitarian and UN military actors, notwithstanding visibility budget lines, coloured cars, logos, flags, building signs, T-shirts, etc. This draws attention to a really important point: While we may agonize over how to ethically procure from non-military-associated companies or how to brand ourselves differently from the military, the real issue is about how the people we aim to serve, work with, move past and live near perceive us. Investing time (and money) in understanding our clients’ needs, wants and desires as well as broader social perceptions of our presence and actions, remains a critical imperative in humanitarian interventions.

If anything, using remote data-gathering technology or remote delivery capacities increases the importance of two-way communication flows to and from the general populace. The potential for misunderstanding is extremely high and should be the focus of serious attention for any agency wanting to move forward in deploying this technology.


Addendum, 9th September: A response to Patrick Meier’s comments

The above blog post seems to have elicited two initial types of response: one positive, coming primarily from those struggling with issues of perception and misperception around the use of drones in places like Congo; the other a defence of the use of community-managed UAVs in response to natural hazard-induced disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines.

In particular, my post appears to have touched a nerve with Patrick Meier, who responded with one of his own, following a brief twitter exchange. Patrick expresses the concern that I failed to mention, footnote or hyperlink to any grassroots drone projects of the sort that he has supported and promoted on his iRevolution blog and elsewhere.  He then proceeds to dissect and, in so doing, somewhat misses the point of the above post. Reviewing his commentary I’m struck by how much convergence there is in our views, though much of this seems to have become lost in translation. I’ll try to touch on each of the points that Patrick raises and hope to repair some of the divergences of interpretation in the process.

First and foremost, the post above is not a critique of the OCHA policy brief that it cites, which seems to be how Patrick has read and responded to it. On the contrary, as I state above, I think the report provides a useful summary of the key issues. I agree with the brief’s recommendation to not deploy in conflict settings but suspect (and we are already seeing this in Congo) that the pressure will come to make use of such technology in these situations because there is often a combination of great need for more accurate information, a dearth of reliable information supply and multiple, often well-resourced international actors seeking to fill the gap. So while I agree that it would be sensible to avoid deploying drones for humanitarian purposes in conflict settings, my concerned hunch is that we’re going to see increasing interest in doing so. 

Now to the points of agreement and clarification (with some injected nuance):

  1. Patrick argues that past technological developments had associations with the military and that these have faded over time with the transfer of that technology into the civilian sphere. He cites satellites and aerial imagery in the transition from Sputnik to Google Maps. For Patrick: “Point is, perceptions are not static, they change as technologies spill over into the civilian sector and become more democratized.” I tend to agree (though I’d call it commercialised rather than ‘democratized’) and had thought about making a similar argument about much of the tech that aid workers now take for granted, especially in the domain of communications. However there are two really important caveats:
    • This transition of perceptions is context specific. The examples that Patrick gives are about changing associations in the move from (Cold) war to (Western) peace. Take that technology back into a war zone or even an area in which there is latent conflict and it can be perceived in very different ways: cell phones, cameras, sat phones, HF and VHF radios can get you in a lot of trouble very quickly in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, yes, over time it is likely that drones will acquire many meanings beyond the associations I pointed out above, but this is not necessarily going to help in situations of heightened tension. Which bring us back to the importance of perception and communication in those settings.
    • There is something different about the perception of drones as a concept, as a category of objects, from all the examples mentioned above. Again, this is not a static issue and is susceptible to change, but while satellites and aerial imagery, cell phones, radios and cameras have all been used to coordinate the delivery of death, they were not the instrument and they were not promoted as the instrument of death and destruction on mass-mediated news and entertainment platforms over a period of years. All of which to say, the communication challenge is somewhat tougher and all the more important as a result of this current association.
  1. In response to my rhetorical question “Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy drones if there is a strong, responsive state?”, Patrick states: “Surely one could also ask: ‘Why would humanitarian actors need to deploy themselves, satellite imagery, mobile phones and [insert your favorite item here] if there is a strong, responsive state?’” I completely agree. This is precisely the question that aid agencies need to be asking themselves more systematically. One size fits all humanitarianism needs to be challenged and a clear case for context-specific added value made. However, Patrick, rightly acknowledging that he is “not sure what to do with this rhetorical question” wrongly infers: “arguing, as Alyoscia does, that UAVs offer comparatively little value when it comes to natural hazards is simply not supported by the empirical evidence; this evidence also contradicts the argument that strong states do not need UAVs.” This is not at all what I said, intended or meant above. This was referring to the likely pressure (already referenced above in this addendum) to deploy UAVs in fragile and crisis-affected settings.

All of these misunderstandings lead Patrick to the following conclusion:

“So using these (problematic) arguments to suggest that UAVs would have more value in complex emergencies and then faulting OCHA for discouraging the use of UAVs in conflict zones is perhaps a tad unfair.”

Indeed. Had I actually made those arguments, it would have been more than a tad unfair.

Patrick also makes a plea for not repeating challenges and moving to a more solutions-orientated discourse around UAVs. Here I suspect we are very much in agreement that the way forward lies in improved community (and wider stakeholder) engagement, dialogue and communication.

Alyoscia D'Onofrio is the IRC's Senior Director for Governance & Rights programming.  You can follow him on Twitter @AlyosciaD.

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Hi Alyoscia, Many thanks for

Hi Alyoscia, Many thanks for taking the time to clarify, I will be sure to share your response with several colleagues who also misunderstood your arguments. And I’m glad to read that we’re also in agreement. As I clearly noted 3 times throughout my blog post, your concerns are absolutely warranted. I also clearly stated that I shared your concern. It is precisely because of our shared concerns that I emphasized community-based projects as this addressed some of the issues you quite rightly raised. What I simply wasn’t able to follow was the logic and flow of your article. It really did come across to some of us that you were saying UAVs have more value in conflict zones and then raised all the problems with using them in conflict zones only to come to the overarching conclusion about the general use of drones (regardless of whether they’re used in conflict zones or not). In any event, I’ll be sure to email your clarification to several colleagues. Thanks again for taking the time to clarify and expand on your points. I’ve got a longer blog post on “UAVS for Peacebuilding & Conflict Prevention” coming out and can only hope to get from others the kind of insightful and informative response that you have kindly taken the time to provide in your follow up blog post to mine. Here’s to writing with more clarity and to giving the benefit of the doubt. Cheers! Patrick