Q. What are the potential applications of drones for aid and relief operations?
Although much of the publicity about drones often highlights the negative security and privacy, drones also have the potential to have salutary impacts. For example, wildlife researchers have been using drones carrying cameras and sensors to track and document wildlife, estimate population sizes, map terrain, and catch poachers in areas of Africa, South Asia, and more recently Latin America.29 For example, Mexico has planned to use drones to detect illegal fishing of porpoises in the Sea of Cortez. As a government official observed, "drones would allow us to have permanent aerial patrols in the area and be able to react much more efficiently and quickly" to protect the porpoises, which are fewer than 100 in number and threatened by the same nets that fish for the totoaba, a fish that is highly sought after by chefs in China.30
A number of actors have sought to promote the idea further. Princess Aliyah Pandolfi of Kashmir-Robotics founded the Wildlife Conservation UAV (Drone) Challenge. The challenge, to design inexpensive drones capable of detecting and locating poachers, attracted close to 140 entries. The drones must also be able to be launched from the bush, operate for hours at a time, and communicate over existing commercial infrastructures.31 Google gave the World Wildlife Fund $5 million for anti-poaching drones, which have conducted aerial surveillance in isolated areas of Africa and Asia, where poaching of endangered species is common.32 These drones are often launched by hand and are equipped with night vision capabilities to see poachers in all levels of light. The visual information coming from the drones is then communicated to rangers, who can apprehend the poachers. More generally, drones could be useful for documenting wildlife that is difficult to reach otherwise, such as killer whales and osprey. They are able to conduct flyovers and document population size without disturbing the animals to the extent that a fixed-wing, manned aircraft would. Recognition technology that could differentiate between different species is also being developed.
Another application of drones with considerable upsides is the use of drones for disaster relief. Drones have the virtue of being able to access areas of an earthquake relief zone, for example, that would be inaccessible to humans. For example, in the wake of the 7.8-magnitude Nepal earthquake in 2015, relief workers were struggling to reach some of the areas that had been impacted most severely. Aid organizations began turning to drones to reach these areas in ways that individuals could not. For example, the aid organization GlobalMedic used three drones to locate trapped individuals via thermal cameras mounted onto drones. The drones could also use aerial mapping to create a picture of the areas in highest need and then focus food assistance to those areas. In an area with a shortage of resources and poor infrastructure, being able to triage based on this drone footage was extremely helpful.
Drones for these purposes followed the example of the 2011 Japan Fukushima nuclear accident, in which drones were used to identify radiation levels so that individuals did not have to be exposed to potentially dangerous radiation levels themselves. A Japanese company has subsequently developed a drone that can fly into the Fukushima reactor autonomously, using lasers to avoid obstacles and recharging batteries without human intervention. One robotics company, Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd, created a 1-meter-wide, six- propeller drone to collect dust for examination and measure radiation levels, producing data in real-time.
Another emerging application suitable to aid and relief missions that are often too dangerous for manned equivalents is the use of drones to fight wildfires. In 2015, the National Park Service used surveillance drones such as the catapult-launched ScanEagle to provide information about the fire in Olympic National Park. The area was remote, with much of the terrain inaccessible, and the drone was able to map the most intense hot spots, while also guiding water drops in a more efficient way. The California National Guard had similarly used drones in 2013 to do infrared mapping of the Yosemite National Park fire, and drones have also been used for remote fires in Alaska. The FAA had to provide temporary waivers and certificates in each case, but the appealing aspect of using drones for these cases was to spare pilots their lives in what is often a hazardous duty. Drones have also drawn ire in the context of wildfires, however; not the officially sanctioned ones but the hobbyist aircraft that have interfered with wildfire management and caused firefighters to ground the planes they were using to fight the fires. The Board of Supervisors in San Bernardino, California, offered a $75,000 reward for information about several incidents of drone interference, and the FAA has indicated that it will crack down on recreational drone users who create public safety hazards.
The use of drones for aid and relief has no doubt produced efficient relief provision but some of the bad apples cited above has created something of an uphill battle for doing so. The American Red Cross has conducted a study to investigate how it might be able to use drones for disaster response and relief, and while it has identified many potential opportunities, it also raised some questions about regulations and the policy environment in which the drones would operate. For example, groups wanting to use drones for the 2014 Washington State mudslide relief effort were rebuffed by government officials concerned about how the drones might be used. A United Nations humanitarian affairs official who conducted a study on the use of drones for humanitarian responses concluded that the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of restrictiveness: "It's been interesting to see how fast we went from total Wild West to something where it's rapidly shifting to the default is that you can't do it without permission, but there's not necessarily clear rules for how do you get permission."33