Can drones be useful in humanitarian crises?

Axel Bromberg - WFP
09 June 2017
While drones are often associated with the military or are seen as consumer toys, their positive application in humanitarian contexts is swiftly gaining more interest from within the sector.

The technology, while faced with many challenges, offers significant potential to emergency responders. When a disaster strikes, saving lives can depend on first responders’ ability to gather accurate data as fast and efficiently as possible. Drones can play an important role in providing humanitarian workers with this vital and possibly life-saving information.

Drones in emergency response


The added value of drones in emergency situations has already been recognised by many within the humanitarian community. A recent survey conducted by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) shows that the majority of humanitarian aid professionals has favourable views on the use of drones in humanitarian response operations.

Using the technology in emergency operations has many advantages that could benefit the whole humanitarian community. Flown remotely and equipped with high resolution cameras, drones are able to scan, record and map large areas in relatively short periods of time. This allows aid workers to assess the damage after a natural disaster and identify which areas are most in need of aid.

Such mapping and assessment missions have already been conducted in the past. For example following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, humanitarian organisation Medair was struggling to provide aid to the most affected areas in the Philippines. The satellite images that were available at the time were out of date or of low quality and no detailed maps were available. Drones were therefore deployed to take high resolution images of the region so that they could identify which areas needed support the most.

The same was done in Nepal in 2015 in the aftermath of the earthquake. Several humanitarian organisations deployed drones to gather data and detailed imagery in order to map certain areas and assess damage more accurately. With this information, aid workers were able to provide more targeted aid in a more effective way.

The challenges that lay ahead


Despite the fact that humanitarian organisations are using drones more and more often, their application in humanitarian settings still faces several challenges.

For example, most aid workers lack essential experience or training in working with drones, while others are concerned about their affiliation with the military. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has even advised against the use of drones in conflict zones due to this association. One of the greatest obstacles, however, has been the lack of a clear framework for a coordinated approach by the humanitarian community.

For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, nobody knew exactly how many drone teams were operating in the country. According to Patrick Meier, from the Humanitarian UAV Network, while a number of humanitarian teams decided to communicate amongst each other in an effort to better coordinate their work, many others did not. Some drone teams were even reluctant to share their flight plans or data with others, leading to frustration with local communities, the government and other humanitarian organisations.

In addition to communication-related issues, many of the drone teams were not familiar with national laws and regulations. While some were not aware that they needed legal permission from the government in order to operate, others forgot to inform local authorities that they had in fact received this permission. In some cases this led to confusion and unnecessary delays.

With drone technology becoming more and more prominent in humanitarian response, the challenges that come with it will also increase. This is why there is an urgent need for a framework to properly address these challenges head-on. Humanitarian actors must work together in coordination with local authorities, the private sector and each other in order to take full advantage of the technology.

The way forward


No coordination platform currently exists but the first steps are already being taken. To help humanitarian organisations and other actors harness the power of drone technology, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), in partnership with the Government of Belgium, has launched a one-year pilot project to develop the coordinated use of drones in disaster response (box). In the near future WFP hopes to deploy drones as an effective tool for disaster relief.

workshop drones à Bruxelles


Belgium works on a more efficient use of drones


Together with WFP Belgium wants to deploy drones in humanitarian operations more efficiently. As part of this effort, the Belgian Development Cooperation organised a first workshop in early February 2017 which brought together experts from the humanitarian, academic, government and private sectors. Over the course of two days, stakeholders discussed the many challenges and opportunities and set out the groundworks for the workshops that are still to come in disaster-prone countries later this year.

Both Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of WFP, and Alexander De Croo, Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, attended the last day of the workshop to stress the importance of partnerships in technology and innovation.

Belgium has established itself as a key partner and donor to WFP projects focusing on innovation and technology in the fight against hunger. The WFP’s humanitarian drones programme is a good example of this. In 2016, Belgium contributed more than €28 million to WFP projects, which are supporting nearly eight million people in eight countries.

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