Using drones to deliver critical humanitarian aid

Sam Sherman
Jun 7, 2018 · 3 min read

UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — commonly referred to as “drones”) are already used routinely for mapping and monitoring following rapid-onset emergencies like hurricanes and earthquakes. In DFID we are also exploring the use of UAVs for carrying light-weight, time-critical items, to help address humanitarian challenges.

For instance, cargo UAVs could prove to be valuable for:

  1. Delivering critical medical aid within the first 72 hours of a crisis, when damaged infrastructure or flooding sometimes makes roads impassable.
  2. Transporting microbiological samples (e.g. in relation to tuberculosis) from field clinics to testing labs, since transporting samples by motorbike can be prohibitively slow.
  3. Rapidly delivering health commodities for which there is unpredictable demand, such as anti-venom.
  4. Supporting vaccination campaigns by delivering vaccines when and where needed, in areas without a reliable cold chain.

I recently had the opportunity to test some of these uses with our partners at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and a non-profit called Help.NGO. The video below is from our test flights; it shows how we might use a drone to help support our responses to rapid-onset emergencies:

FFVideo: DFID, WFP and Help.NGO testing of a UAV for delivering medical aid

UAVs won’t replace conventional humanitarian vehicles like 4x4s and planes. But they could bolster responses, adding an extra, complementary tool for humanitarians to use. They can be pre-positioned in disaster-prone regions, they don’t require extensive infrastructure (like runways) to operate, and they can circumvent poor infrastructure. Our work through Frontier Tech Livestreaming is focused on learning about which problems can be addressed using UAVs, and which problems are best left to existing solutions.

For example, alongside our partners in the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) we will also soon be testing whether UAVs could be used to provide emergency connectivity in the aftermath of hurricanes, when communication towers are often damaged. The UAV will be tethered to the ground with a wire, allowing it to hover continuously for 72h+, and will be fitted with a 3G router to beam out a signal. This will enable people on the ground to communicate with one another and with emergency responders.

In addition, we will be working with WFP Aviation Services to test a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) which could transport almost 2 tonnes of humanitarian aid over significant distances.

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Working with the Mozambican National Disaster Management Institute and the UN World Food Programme ahead of floods, using UAVs to support the conventional response

By testing these uses in DFID we hope to exploit the most promising uses of UAVs in a responsible and thoughtful way. To use UAVs prudently DFID is paying particular attention to:

  • Community engagement;
  • Data protection;
  • The humanitarian principles and standards;
  • Integration with humanitarian response plans;
  • Cost-effectiveness.

We believe that careful consideration of these aspects is just as important as the technical tests.

Following the trial flights (above), I discussed this work at an event regarding humanitarian innovation hosted at the UN, alongside representatives from WFP, UNICEF, ICRC, and the Government of Mozambique. If you’d like to hear more about humanitarian UAVs you can watch a recording of the event below:

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the FCDO to apply frontier technologies to development

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