Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones produce a visceral reaction, perceived in different ways through the eyes of the beholder. Is it a military weapon, hi-tech recreation, or a research tool?
International development professionals have formed additional uses for this technology. UAVs conduct remote surveys, deliver test results or supplies, and provide surveillance. Yet, there are issues of privacy, safety, and community perceptions.
At the recent “When, Where, and How Can We Use Drones for Good?” Technology Salon, we debated the current usage of UAVs for development.
Whether through remote controlled or programmed for autonomous flight, drones accomplish tasks hampered by inaccessible roads, time, and human limitations. That said, there’s baggage that comes with UAVs: drones have killed and drones have spied on citizens. Some people see drones and think “Big Government.”
So when aid workers wish to utilize drones in developing countries, community and governmental outreach is essential. During the Tech Salon, one researcher noted how FHI 360, in collaboration with Drone Adventures, gained this feedback through a survey of citizens and government officials in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to assess their perceptions of UAVs.
The study coincided with Drone Adventures’ flights on behalf of the World Bank and the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), to map areas vulnerable to flooding in the capital city.
After an introduction about the project, 208 adult citizens, who witnessed the flights, and 14 high-level government officials, who received an orientation and watched a video of the flights, were asked about their understanding of UAVs.
Both groups acknowledged the potential of this technology for infrastructure improvement, transporting medical supplies, and wildlife management. Government officials also noted weather sensing, mapping, and border surveillance as other uses. However, the officials had concerns, as well.
These representatives zeroed in on cost, regulations, local capacity to maintain the technology, and visual privacy (since some latrines in Tanzania are roofless). Many of these concerns could be answered through additional information on UAV technology and applications.
After the assessment and completion of the study, several recommendations emerged:
- Raise awareness about the applications of this technology in Tanzania.
- Foster local capacity to create, maintain, and use the technology.
- Engage the local government and educate the public, for support.
- Follow best practices, such as those recognized by the UAViators Code of Conduct, to ensure safe and ethical operations.
- Observe and track perceptions of UAVs, over periods of time.
Local Communities: Limitations and Possibilities
A drone is only as good as its functionality to the task, and how local communities perceive it. During the Tech Salon, a researcher from Ohio University noted how drones were frowned upon in Appalachian regions of Kentucky and Ohio. He was using the technology for an exploratory Geographic Information Systems (GIS) seminar on UAVs and remote sensing. Residents saw the devices as tools for government spying. There were safety concerns as well. A DJI Phantom 3 can only handle winds up to 35 MPH. Currents stronger than that could knock a drone off course. There’s also the possibility of lost signals, which could lead to crashes.
Among the Tech Salon participants, one aid director recalled the use of a drone during project work in Monrovia, Liberia. This was a test flight to confirm if the UAV could be used in an urban area for 900 schools. Yet, due to congestion, tricky winds, and difficulty spotting the tin-shack schools, the team decided to use direct visits, instead. Fortunately, it was an unofficial test, to avoid creating undue expectations on the part of the government.
Somewhat relevant to this point is the belief that human contact, during surveys of this nature, adds a “psychosocial element” – the value of caring. Meanwhile, drones may be regarded as neutral at best, or negatively at worst.
But despite these limitations, there are equally successful ways in which drones have been applied to international development projects.
Locally Driven Innovation
WeRobotics, an organization incorporating decades of experience in humanitarian, development, environmental, robotics, and business sectors, has implemented dozens of aerial robotics missions and trainings, during the past three years in multiple countries. One representative of the organization reiterated that locals make the final decision on whether UAVs will be flown in their communities. “If a local community says, ‘no,’ then it’s no. No problem.”
WeRobotics also follows the Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct, first drafted in March 2014 and revised in August 2015. This code recommends “the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian and development settings,” according to its guidelines.
In their work, WeRobotics use drones as “flying labs” to enhance local capacity in the form of data gathering or cargo delivery, which serves to improve local businesses. Their work relies heavily on translating local skills based on the needs of local partners. As its representative noted locals saying, “We have this issue; can robots help?”
Local coordinators, who participate in training labs and learn the codes of conduct, fly the UAVs and share the data, whether in the form of imagery, relaying blood samples, or delivering supplies. They also repair the vehicles with parts that are available in country – since going through customs can be a nightmare for this technology.
WeRobotics also collaborates with private sector partners, like DJI and senseFly. These companies help in drone repairs and usage because they want a reputation of reliability for their products in the field.
There are added benefit of hiring and training local coordinators: they understand the culture, the topography and weather, and they’re significantly cheaper than having development agencies hire a consultant to fly from Silicon Valley to Nepal.
Institutions, Agencies, Organizations, and UAVs
Aid agencies and institutions are raising awareness and seeking opportunities to apply UAVs to their missions. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is involved in a number of projects using drone technology, such as: mapping to help governments regulate industry in Ghana, monitoring deforestation in Peru, identifying agricultural threats in Mozambique, and assessing severe weather impacts in India.
In Tanzania, USAID is taking a public/private partnership approach with Zipline, a company that produces small robot aircraft designed to deliver vaccines, medicine, or blood samples. The products are dropped off in boxes via parachute to hospitals and health centers.
During the Tech Salon, World Bank representatives noted their use of “innovation labs” that integrate emerging technologies into their projects. In the case of drones, these devices are applied to post-disaster areas, conducting household surveys. In Kosovo, drones are used to measure land rights issues. In other cases, drones are used for environmental monitoring and assessing road conditions.
To bring locals at ease, one World Bank representative who works directly with UAVs took to referring to the drones as a “fluffy pigeons,” making it innocuous compared to the more militaristic past perceptions. Furthermore, it was theorized that changing the color of these devices could remove the intimidation factor associated with it – for example, baby blue as a possible coloration.
Other organizations are also finding similar uses of UAVs within their respective innovation teams. Jhpiego’s innovation group is considering drones for the transportation of drugs or test results. RTI International has a drone development and remote sensing group focused on projects such as pest control and disaster relief tracking.
Despite these interests in expanding the use of drones to humanitarian and development assistance, governments worldwide have increased the level of regulation of UAVs in their airspace. As of January 2016, almost 300,000 owners have registered their UAVs in the first 30 days after the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) online registration system became active. Those who registered in the first month got a refund on the $5 application fee.
Although most have heard of the “no drone zone” in certain areas of the District of Columbia, there are countries with regulations that are significantly harsher. In Tanzania, one must pay $533 for a permit to fly a drone. For those who fly UAVs that weigh a pound and a half or heavier, they must purchase a license that costs $8,000.
As of January of last year, anyone in Kenya wishing to fly a drone must secure permission from the Ministry of Defense and Kenya’s Civil Aviation Authority. Comprehensive regulations are in the planning phase. According to an article on the news site, PRI.org, drone flights were curtailed because someone decided to fly a UVA at Nyayo Stadium in December 2014, minutes before Kenya’s president was to arrive. These security concerns are coming from a country that experienced several lethal attacks by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, with 147 students massacred at Garissa University during April of last year.
In Nigeria, businesses wishing to operate drones must pay registration fees up to $4,000, which many argue could stifle industry innovation. Whether these regulations are emerging for the sake of accountability, security, or fiscal opportunity is open to interpretation. Overall, it creates significant growing pains for the use of drones in humanitarian assistance. It’s not as if aid workers don’t want regulation; it’s just that the rules need to help all parties.
There are several suggestions recommended by the representative of WeRobotics to possibly counter excessive regulation and build trust.
- Inform the government of the areas where UAVs will be flown by local staff.
- Invite police and local government officials to accompany surveys. To show them they aren’t flying “predator drones” or some ominous vehicle.
- Present success projects that have been applied to half a dozen countries.
Overall, the application of drones to international development work is an exciting opportunity. There’s a definite “wow factor” with it among aid workers and local recipients of assistance. There are drone projects in development that experts applaud. But as is the case with any new methodology or technology, rigorous impact evaluations are essential; there aren’t enough large-scale use cases.
A few Tech Salon participants argued that USAID should fund evaluations of drone-related projects, rather than implementation. This isn’t even considering the pushback from a few governments that see these tools as a new source of suspicion or a barrier to “business as usual” corruption. UAVs are in the pilot phase, pun intended, but it will take more time for all parties to trust these tools.
By Corey Quinlan Taylor a freelance writer and editor.