UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” are remotely piloted aircrafts or those that are flying autonomously on a programmed route
What We Learned from the Dialogue
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” are remotely piloted aircrafts or those that are flying autonomously on a programmed route. They can range in size from small helicopters that can fit in the palm of a hand to full-sized, fixed-wing planes. And they can use any number of sensors, from visible light to infrared as well as air and water sensors, in their missions. They are typically assigned flying tasks that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft.
UAVs are most notably used by military forces for aerial reconnaissance, but there are a myriad of civilian uses, from photographing real estate to monitoring livestock, pipelines and wildfires; and delivering needed supplies. Amazon Prime Air and Matternet are two examples of the latter. They are developing UAVs to deliver goods weighing up to five pounds (2.3 kilograms) over a 30-mile (48 kilometers) range.
In recent years, several humanitarian organizations and governments have used UAVs in disaster management, most notably for assessing vulnerabilities before an emergency and damage after the disaster. Conservationists and farmers also utilize UAVs to track animals as well as the poachers and predators who hunt them.
Professional-grade UAVs can require a significant financial investment for communities; however, when compared to satellite imagery they are less expensive and more precise. As with 3D printers, the cost and size of UAVs is dropping quickly, while the capacity of their payload size and type is increasing just as fast. Until recently, UAVs have been largely unavailable to stressed populations, but creative minds in Latin America have found ways to assemble low-cost, balloon-style drones using trash for a fraction of the cost. They are also becoming increasingly rugged and safer, diminishing some concerns of the past.
Yet, the technology is still in its infancy, and regulations have not kept pace with UAV innovation, including safety regulations, licensing, insurance and training protocols. Air space control has led to sweeping bans in some countries and small-range restrictions in others. In many contexts, UAVs must remain within the line of sight of the operator during the flight, for example. Crossing borders for trade also presents political and economic challenges that have yet to be resolved.
UAVs also have an image problem. They are still closely associated with their military use, and are seen by some as weapons. As a result, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has issued guidelines on the use of UAVs in humanitarian efforts, discouraging their use in post-conflict settings.
Still, UAVs have been well received throughout the dialogue. And although the issues surrounding them are becoming more complex, they are revolutionizing the options for data collection, trade and agriculture. Both community members and experts involved in the dialogue agreed on their value as quick delivery agents for high-value supplies, such as medicines, and the sky as a temporary supply route in early response activities, as UAVs could traverse terrain that might be impassable otherwise. They also appreciated their potential to supply lighting, power and connectively from the air until more permanent solutions on the ground can be restored post-disaster.
One recurring theme from the global dialogue was UAV ownership. Community members did not express high levels of trust in government or private industry owning and operating drones for the public’s benefit. They were more comfortable with community ownership and management of UAV technology. With the rapidly decreasing cost and skills needed to fly UAVs, local community groups can and do own UAVs today, including disaster survivors in Haiti. Like 3D printers, robots and smart cars, UAVs were also considered ideal products for sharing economies.