Drones to the rescue

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Innovation has become a major priority for UNICEF. A big part of our work in innovation means exploring new ideas and technology – even some technology that can be seemingly controversial.

In mid-March, UNICEF video producer Nerina Penzhorn and I visited Pia Zaragoza, a graduate student at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Pia has received funding from UNICEF to research future humanitarian uses for UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly knows as drones. Her work has been inspired by the idea to design more efficient UAVs for humanitarian use factoring in cost, scalability and open source availability.

Pia came up with the concept of a modular drone. The idea is that the drone can be used for different or multiple purposes, or missions. These include physical product delivery including vaccines, food and other needed supplies, to information gathering using sensors and cameras to map conditions and provide connectivity in hard to reach areas, particularly in times of disaster. Different modules are used to customize the different uses for the UAV. Using a 3D printer, Pia created a prototype of the UAV. With the increasing accessibility of 3D printing technology, such UAVs could be reproduced at relatively low cost.

But will the idea sell? Drones usually elicit negative reactions – and for good reason. Drones have been primarily used by military forces. A recent report by UNHCR has called for independent investigations to be carried out after a number of unexpected civilian deaths occurred in what were supposed to be targeted drone attacks. Additionally, surveillance drones raise significant issues for privacy and civil liberties and privacy laws have not kept up with the pace of UAV technology. Some drones have high-tech cameras can scan entire cities, or zoom in and read a milk carton from 60,000 feet. They can also carry wifi and mimic cell phone towers that can determine your location or intercept texts and phone calls.

On the other hand, we have started to see UAVs utilized in emergency response. For example, they were used during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Using high-tech cameras, UAVs were used to do immediate assessments of affected areas in real-time, allowing officials to make decisions on resource allotment and deployment. UAVs are advantageous as they can stay in the air for long periods of time and do not require someone to go in harm’s way.

It is also with this technology, that we may be able provide people with what they really want and need in times of emergency. The ability of UAVs to enable connectivity during an emergency is a point that Mac Glovinsky from UNICEF’s Innovation Unit stresses as a necessity for the future of UAVs in humanitarian aid. UAVs can be used to instantly provide internet service to areas that need it. Connectivity during an emergency is somethingthat the Innovation Unit has explored with such ideas as the Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification app. Mac, who has worked in many emergencies around the globe, has observed how people in an emergency rely heavily on their mobile devices.

“For me, connectivity is something that’s emerging as a lifesaving good in emergencies. This is something that I saw a lot of in the Philippines, where people would have barely any essential goods like spare clothes and food stocks, but everyone had cellphones and were searching for a signal. If UAVs could provide connectivity in an emergency setting, I think that this would be a serious benefit to any relief or humanitarian operation; allowing people to connect to other people, even if it’s just to say ‘I’m OK’, would be a gigantic leap forward in our provision of services to emergency affected communities.”

So, what will the future hold for drones and humanitarian aid? While we may not know the answers now, Pia and other innovators like her are paving the way to the future, one that if up to them, will have drones helping to save lives for UNICEF.