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#InDevelopment: The future of humanitarian response? Flying high: drones for humanity

To celebrate the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, our #InDevelopment blog series has invited global experts in humanitarian response to investigate cutting edge themes and the future of humanitarian assistance. Whilst there is enormous press coverage of the destructive impact of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, in reality they have huge positive potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian logistics. Prof Peter Tatham, a global expert in the field of humanitarian logistics from Griffith University, explores the role of UAVs in humanitarian response.

An aerosonde robotic aircraft:

Relieving the ‘4W challenge’
It is broadly accepted that some 60-80% of the income of aid agencies is used to procure, transport, warehouse and deliver support in disaster response operations – in other words, the practice of humanitarian logistics. However, the very nature of such operations mean that they are bedevilled by the ‘4W challenge’ – or ‘who wants what where?’ – otherwise known as ‘Needs Assessment’. This can be a huge barrier to the effectiveness of humanitarian missions. But, UAV technology is now a viable option. A camera-equipped long endurance UAV, with a flying time of 8-10 hours, has the potential to significantly improve the speed and impact of the lifesaving decisions made by a country’s National Disaster Management Organisation (NDMO).

UAVs such as this also offer a great deal of flexibility. They can be launched from the roof of a 4x4 vehicle and are fitted with either a video or still camera that can operate in daylight or night time (using infra-red imagery). Controlled via a satellite link, they have a range of some 1,000km, can be operated by a crew of 3 (pilot, camera operator, and maintainer – similar to a light helicopter), and achieve this on some 5-6 litres of fuel. These aircraft can reach isolated areas, such as the islands of Tafea province of Vanuatu or the Eastern islands of Fiji, which were severely affected by Cyclones Pam (March 2015) and Winston (March 2016), and swiftly provide a clear picture of the damage caused by natural disasters to support the NDMO’s response process. In short, they have the potential to revolutionise humanitarian response.

Our eyes, ears and first responder
Equally importantly, UAVs have the potential to establish fast and reliable communications networks in the crucial hours and days following a natural disaster. These aircraft can fly in such a way that they act as temporary cellular-phone towers in the event that a fixed installation is affected (as was the case in both cyclones Pam and Winston). They also have a ‘find-your-phone’ capability that enables the NDMO in question to initiate contact with those on the ground, as well as the ability to drop a small item (up to 5kg) such as a satellite phone with solar panel charging. By making use if some or all of these capabilities, response teams are able to obtain a much swifter understanding of the impact of a disaster and, crucially, this information can be shared in real time with supporting nations and organisations. This communications channel is critical for saving lives in the aftermath of natural disasters (for example, Australia in the case of Cyclones Pam and Winston). The UAV is also capable of scouting potential supply routes to ensure safe passage for personnel and equipment.

So, in the humanitarian context, drones become our eyes and ears, and our first responder. Making our logistical response intentional and evidence-based, rather than guess work, has hugely positive implications for life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Helicopters depart from Abraham Lincoln en route to Aceh, Sumatra, supporting humanitarian airlifts to tsunami-stricken coastal regions in early 2005:

UAV vs Helicopter
Of course airborne craft are not new to humanitarian response. Helicopters currently play a crucial role. However, drones offer us cost and labour efficiencies that take the flexibility of airborne response to the next level. A long endurance UAV with a camera not only has a capital cost that is approximately half that of a light helicopter, the running costs are also far less. For example, in 1999 an Aerosonde UAV flew 3,270km across the Atlantic Ocean for 26 hours 45 minutes consuming just under 8 litres of fuel! Furthermore, UAVs can be swiftly deployed, and perhaps more importantly, free up helicopters and fixed wing aircraft for tasks that are more appropriate for manned aircraft, such as search and rescue operations or casualty evacuation. Diversifying the airborne response to humanitarian disasters has the potential to enhance the impact of all elements of the logistical process.

People, processes and technology
However, alone the UAV represents but one part of the people – processes – technology triangle and operationalising their use will require investment to ensure the seamless integration and interpretation of received data in NDMO systems. There is also an ethical query to satisfy; the population of a potential area of use must be made aware of drone use and be afforded the time to investigate any and all associated safety and privacy implications. Whilst work is still taking place to develop an agreed code of conduct, the NGO-developed UAViators currently represents best practice. The relationship between each part of this triumvirate will play a major role in determining whether or not this technology reaches its potential in the humanitarian sphere.

What does the future hold?
Achieving the full capability of long endurance UAVs will take some time to develop, but they have enormous potential to improve the response to major humanitarian disasters – and, in particular, the Needs Assessment process. This could be achieved by working with a small number of countries that are likely to be impacted by major natural disasters and developing the most appropriate country-specific approaches that will maximise the benefits of the use of UAVs. Apart from developing the people and process-related responses outlined above, such ‘proof of concept’ trials can also be used to create an image bank that will subsequently support an even more detailed understanding of the impact of a disaster through a comparison of pre- and post-event photography.
Unfortunately, in the minds of many, UAVs are seen as a ‘weapon of war’ – but their very technical capabilities and features make them an ideal component of the overall humanitarian response to a disaster. Ultimately, UAVs have the potential to reduce the impact of a humanitarian disaster, speed up the recovery process and save lives.


InDevelopment May contributor: Prof Peter Tatham is Professor of Humanitarian Logistics at Griffith University, Queensland.

A former (UK) Royal Navy logistician, Professor Peter Tatham is a global expert in the field of humanitarian logistics and is Professor of Humanitarian Logistics at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia where he is a member of the Griffith Asia Institute and Urban Research Program. His research interests include: humanitarian logistics; the management of agile supply networks; and defence logistics. Professor Tatham is currently working with HKL Logistics on the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in the achievement of post-disaster needs assessment and resupply activities, in the use of 3D Printing to improve Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programs, and in the development of supply chains to support the use of ‘medical maggots’.


InDevelopment is Palladium’s blog series exploring emerging, cutting-edge and profound themes in global development. You’ll hear from our global experts and guests every two weeks. For more from Palladium’s International Development work follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and at #InDevelopment.