Insight Blog

Drones And The Next Frontier of Humanitarian Aid

Besides their commercial value, drones can also be used to aid in social and environmental matters

The global drones market is estimated to be worth $5.59 billion by the year 2020. This is good news for players in the drone niche and beyond. After all, where this is commercial value, there’s potential for social and environmental impact (something we value very strongly here at Exasol).

We’ve seen this with the internet, mHealth and m-learning, 3D printing in healthcare, AI for activism, blockchain providing supply chain transparency, and drones or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs ) aiding in humanitarian efforts.

From mapping hard to reach areas and delivering supplies in dangerous settings like floodwaters and fires, to assessing property damage from natural disasters, drones are proving to be lifelines in a wide range of situations.

The numbers are astounding. As of February 2017, drones have saved at least 59 lives in 18 different incidents. When more than 8.8 million acres were burned by wildfires in the US this past summer, drones of different sizes were being used to detect, contain, and extinguish fires and they were able to do so faster than firefighting crews and conventional aircrafts. Not only are drones more cost efficient, they don’t put the lives of pilots at risk, and they’re able to be equipped with infrared cameras that cut through smoke, as well as sensors that can detect wind and weather patterns that cause wildfires to spread.

After Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in in 2013, a slew of lightweight UAVs were launched in the devastated region to assess environmental damage. A number of drones were also used in Haiti to survey the land after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the country in 2012.

Most recently, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) issued 70 authorizations for local, state, and federal agencies to fly drones during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Forty-three organizations got special authorization to assess damage. These included the railroad, media organizations, insurance companies and oil and gas companies.

However, while drones proved to be essential in Houston, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has noted that drone usage still needs to be monitored for illegal activity like flying contraband into federal prisons. Drone users have also illegally flown in restricted airspace. To counter this issues, the Drone Advisory Committee is looking into technology that could be used to detect illegal drone usage.

Some drone entrepreneurs and advocates for drones aiding humanitarian efforts hope this doesn’t prevent UAVs from having an impact in future disasters. 

Mike Winn, CEO of DroneDeploy, a drone mapping software with the largest drone data platform in the world, has worked with various rescue organizations in partnership with Humanitarian Drones during recent natural disasters, and plans to help in future emergency efforts. He says with an FAA-sanctioned plan, drones could aid even more lives.

According to DroneDeploy’s findings, drones are six times quicker than rescuers. While a five-person rescue team needs two hours to find a victim, a drone can find that same victim in 20 minutes. 

Drone Mapping For A Better World

In addition to disaster response, drones are being used for wildlife protection, ecosystem and land management, sustainable tourism, urban development and more. The Switzerland-based nonprofit Drone Adventures works with experts in these fields to put drones to good use.

In 2015, Drone Adventures joined forces with SaveOurSeas Foundation, using drones to map the St. Joseph Atoll, which is adjacent to D’Arros Island in the Amirantes, Seychelles. The drones provided detailed arial maps of the Atoll that help the foundation researchers better understand how to preserve the area. This is one example of many among Drone Adventure’s partnerships.

In Lima, Peru, Drone Adventures teamed up with the University of London to map two disenfranchised neighborhoods, while empowering the local residents to use civilian drones to address the challenges their communities face. By seeing current maps of their land, people there were able to determine what information was relevant to their improving their lives.

With continued efforts by Drone Adventures and other organizations, the next frontier of drones for humanity will hopefully come sooner than later. The United Nations group OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and others have been exploring the ongoing use of UAVs for disaster response, and are members of the Humanitarian UAV Network, a 3,000-member initiative in 120+ countries that promote coordinated use of drones for data collection and cargo delivery for humanitarian purposes.

According to the initiative’s website, the Humanitarian UAV Network develops “international guidelines for the responsible use of UAVs, and promotes operational, best practices and community engagement.”

As drone technology advances, and the need for the use of drones in humanitarian situations increases, due to climate change and potential natural disasters, let’s hope illegal activity subsides, and the sky and UAVs are able to be even greater tools for us to protect our planet and its people.

How do you feel about drones doing good? What are the pros and cons? What are some other areas you’d like to see drones used to do good?

Melissa Jun Rowley works at the forefront of the intersection of technology, media and social impact as a writer, digital strategist, entrepreneur and international keynote speaker. She is currently the co-founder of Resolve, a specialist accelerator partnering with sector-leading organizations to help startups across the globe scale internationally. Additionally, Melissa provides content strategy, partnership development, and digital transformation consulting to Fortune 500 companies and social enterprises. As a seasoned journalist, she raises global awareness around frontier tech and social change, gender issues and international development. She started her career as a field producer for CNN and the Associated Press in New York and Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in BBC News, Fast Company, CBS News, NBC, MTV, TechCrunch and The Guardian. @MelissaRowley