In 2015, a group of NYU Abu Dhabi engineering students won the UAE Drones for Good competition with a desert-flying apparatus designed to protect the lives of UAE rangers. Wadi Drone made it possible for the rangers to conduct conservation work without having to navigate the unforgiving desert terrain.
The drone would be dispatched into remote regions and collect images of wildlife snapped by cameras around the desert. The pictures could be beamed wirelessly from the camera on the ground to the drone overhead; no more collecting memory cards by hand. The drone meant the rangers could still do their jobs but from a safe distance.
Wadi Drone is part of a revolutionary movement in which technology is developed and leveraged specifically for good, or the betterment of humanity, a concept Patrick Meier is pioneering in disaster situations so that targeted aid can be deployed more effectively.
The author of Digital Humanitarians and Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute spent months in Nepal using drones to assist with earthquake relief efforts.
But drones are a new and publicly divisive technology. While Meier is an advocate of drones for information gathering, others worry about privacy, and still millions more fly drones just for fun. As a result, regulation has been difficult and varies from country to country.
In the UAE, recreational drone use is legal but there are license requirements and restrictions that dictate where and how high drones can fly, and what types of scenes operators are allowed to photograph.
"We see many examples around the world of how technology is used to repress, harass or spy on populations, but there's another part of the story and it's more powerful," Meier insists. "It's where technology is not dehumanizing but used to extend humanity."
What do we really know about the growing use of drones worldwide? In the face of criticism and regulatory controversy, can drones be used successfully and legally in the context of social good?
Here are a seven highlights from Meier's NYUAD Institute presentation: Digital Humanitarians.
1. Drones are everywhere.
Drones have become democratized. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a global, commercial commodity used recreationally by millions of people in 125+ countries. There were about 4 million purchases of UAVs this year and industry experts say the upward trend will continue. Despite popular belief, military use of drones accounts for a low percentage of worldwide use.
2. In a disaster, drones have unparalleled capabilities.
Drones collect high-resolution images that make it easier for humans to recognize disaster damage in 3D pictures. Information is lost in the 2D space of satellite imagery (Google Earth, for example). For search and rescue, helicopters kick up a lot of dust, and noise prevents rescuers from hearing someone trapped under rubble. UAVs can fly low and quiet.
3. Drones don't mean there's no 'human' in humaniatrian aid.
Drones can capture images but not analyze them. A single 20-minute drone flight can generate up to 800 pictures, which requires 13 hours of a person's time to analyze. In a disaster, humans are needed to categorize drone images by severity (low damage or heavy damage).
4. Drones for disaster relief may soon be the norm.
The World Health Organization as well as Doctors Without Borders have been piloting the use of UAVs to deliver medication and vaccines in Papua New Guinea and Bhutan. UNICEF is also launching a drone-powered medication delivery program in Malawi. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the most conservative, traditional humanitarian organizations, is starting to experiment with UAVs.
5. The need is growing.
Climate scientists are predicting next year's El Nino effect will be the largest in a decade and disproportionately affect cyclone activity in the South Pacific Ocean. In March, some 65,000 people on the island of Vanuatu needed food and shelter after the devastating effects of Cyclone Pam. Next year is expected to be even worse.
6. Global regulation will be difficult.
Each country has its own laws governing drone use. In a humanitarian context, the United Nations, World Bank, Red Cross, and other organizations have helped draft a code of conduct for drone use in a crisis situation. These principles and guidelines are meant to inform the responsible, safe and ethical use of drone technologies (privacy protection, exploitation, data management, etc.) but are not laws and unenforceable. In the US, a certified UAV team was deployed to find people trapped in a deadly mudslide but were not allowed to fly because of local regulations, even though the families of people who were missing wanted them to. Education and awareness will be critical for both the public and lawmakers.
7. Privacy is a legitimate concern.
How do you ask 200,000 people for permission to fly over their city and collect data after a disaster? To this point, a solution for digital humanitarians has been to work with local representatives who are (hopefully) answerable to the community and who will help drone operators work within local privacy guidelines and respect local sensitivities. In some cases, image resolution can be manipulated to protect identities. It's not always black and white though, it's a work in progress.