The Case for Humanitarian Drones: Response

by Jack C. Chow
Commissioned by the Canadian International Council

In my April 2012 article for Foreign Policy, “Predators for Peace,” I sketched a vision in which Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”), now a predominantly military-backed technology, might be adapted for civilian and humanitarian purposes.  With their versatility, drones offer new capabilities in the provision of essentials to stricken populations, especially in hard-to-reach or conflict-ridden zones.  This emerging flight technology offers inventive options to bolster peace operations and humanitarian relief efforts and extend their reach.



The extent of human suffering makes humanitarian assistance and intervention an expansive and expensive mission. Out of the global population of seven billion people, the World Bank estimates that nearly 1.3 billion live in poverty, heavy concentrations of whom are in Africa and South Asia.  Three prominent pandemics that strike the impoverished – HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria – together kill nearly four million annually.  Other easily treatable diseases kill many millions more.  Natural disasters that strike poor countries, such as the Haiti earthquake, compound poverty, unleash diseases, and debilitate governments.  Civil strifes worldwide displace millions and subject them to disease, debilitation, and death.

Emboldened by more affordable solutions and prodded by social activists, national leaders over the past decade have made humanitarianism a more prominent instrument of global statecraft.  The United States launched a series of multi-billion-dollar presidential-level programs aimed at HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa and Asia.  The Geneva-based Global Fund expended $23 billion for anti-disease programs in 151 countries.  By the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) tally in 2011, donor countries had committed $133 billion for official development aid.

The volume and complexity of new aid programs has spawned extensive and complex medical supply chains, many of which traverse difficult or even hostile conditions. Those in need who live in remote locations are at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving aid compared to those living in urban areas.  Conflict zones put aid workers at risk.  Bottlenecks created by warlords and corrupt officials alike choke aid flows.

These barriers give drones new purposes beyond their military origins.  Deploying humanitarian drones that overfly barriers and then conduct simple and sophisticated tasks could reinvent aid operations.  Used conventionally, drones can supplement existing supply chains or provide emergency drops.  Used imaginatively, future drones could detect stirrings of ethnic conflict, find survivors amid rubble, or even perform fanciful functions such as body-temperature surveys of populations to hunt killer outbreaks.

Yet, while drones could dramatically change aid, the promise of repurposing drones from their military origins towards humanitarian missions remains distant.  To date, no major international aid or development agency has announced intentions to acquire or deploy significant numbers of drones for aid operations.  If the inertia persists, drone use will likely remain within the realm of the military, and thus deprive at-risk populations of the technology’s peaceful uses.  If that is the case, many who could be helped or saved by humanitarian drones will instead perish or languish in poverty.



One major obstacle hampering the use of UAVs for aid operations is “drone stigma.”  With the U.S. repeatedly flying drones in the Mideast to spot terrorist targets and then launch surprise attacks against them, the sounds of their patrols, the sights of their silhouettes against the sky, and the suddenness of destruction from missiles fired from afar have evoked fear and opposition among governments and resident populations in conflict zones.

The close association between the sights and sounds of drones and their military impact has engendered a Pavlovian-like reaction among people residing under the drones’ patrol zones: The populace has been conditioned to believe that any drone is a killer drone. 

There is precedent for similar reactions in the history of conventional warfare.  During the German air terror attacks against Britain in the Second World War, Londoners, after enduring thousands of raids, knew instinctively to “duck and cover” when they heard the motors cut off on incoming V-1 buzz-bombs, indicating only 15 seconds until detonation (p. 16).   

Today, the well-intentioned introduction of “peace-op” UAVs for civilians living in former war zones may provoke a similar instinctual reaction from those inured to the sights and sounds of military drones: intense suspicion, fear, and rejection.

Recently, one global health NGO suggested using drones for the peaceful purpose of linking on-the-ground medical teams operating in an isolated developing country apart from the current Mideast war zones.  Because of drones’ reputation as military instruments, the government instantly rejected the idea, leaving a major gap in the project’s design.

Apart from war-zone use, drone stigma may arise from the dual-use nature of the technology.  Governments in aid zones could claim that drones on civilian missions might also serve surreptitious purposes such as intelligence gathering or the probing of the airspace defences.  Such claims could lead to delays or prohibitions that further the hindrance of aid.          

What might counter this dynamic and drive drones towards wide-scale availability and acceptance for civilian uses?  Some insights are gleaned from aviation history.  Soon after the Wright brothers pioneered powered flight in 1903, the U.S. military and competing nations quickly funded entrepreneurs to build military prototypes.  In 1911, just eight years after the Wrights’ first flight, an Italian pilot conducted the first air raid by dropping grenades on a Turkish encampment in the Libyan Desert.  Ensuing advances in military aircraft transformed warfare from the two world wars through to today.  In parallel, civil aviation blossomed from burgeoning commercial demand for passenger and cargo flights.  Having benefited from military-sparked advances, civilian aviation is now ubiquitous and universally accepted to the extent that there is little, if any, stigmatization from the military’s role in flight.



The evolution in conventional flight in both civilian and military sectors points towards a similar path of change for UAVs.  Three driving forces portend a future in which civilian drones will grow to a much larger role in aviation, and could someday surpass military drones in quantity and activity.

1) Cost curve improvements.  As is typical in technology, the initial high per-unit cost of early generation products falls as economies of scale and productivity gains take hold.  Costs of subsequent generations of UAVs are likely to fall towards a baseline level that is comparable to, or even lower than, conventional aircraft.  Having unmanned craft saves weight and cost that otherwise would have been spent on life-support systems and onboard human-directed controls.  As a result, the unmanned vehicle holds a higher proportion of payload and electronic functionality than its manned counterpart.  The melding of the unmanned flight platform with onboard electronics endows the craft with higher flight efficiency and mission impact at the destination.

Improvement rates may differ among categories of drones, leading some types to be adopted ahead of others.  At present, fixed-wing conventional craft, in general, are cheaper to operate than rotor-wing craft such as helicopters.  A reasonable expectation would be for fixed-wing drones to become cheaper to operate than heli-drones.  If that were realized, fixed-wing drones would be used for conventional functions such as delivering cargo, with heli-drone development coming later and for specialized, even exotic, functions.

Commoditization will further drive down per-vehicle costs as manufacturers standardize models and build them in ever-greater quantities.  “Utility drones” incorporating simple and versatile platforms can be built for the general market, then customized for particular uses.  Yet, commoditization may spark intellectual-property conflicts: Airframe design innovations from original inventors may be emulated, or even copied, by competitors who seek to lower costs.

2) Technology curve acceleration.  The potent force of miniaturization in electronics and the ensuing exponential rise of technological capability are often described as adhering to Moore’s Law, the famous rule of thumb that predicts technology doubles its powers every two years.  There are two basic functions for drones: either transporting a physical payload or conveying an electronics package.  The exponential improvements implied by Moore’s Law point to faster gains in drones’ technological capacity compared to payload delivery, the efficiency of which is reliant upon the harder task of improving the flight physics of propulsion, drag, and lift.

With miniaturization, more functions can be packed into smaller chips, making successive generations of drone electronics progressively powerful.  Mimicking the computing industry, makers will launch drones with ever-improving series of cameras, detectors, and communications links.  Powerful onboard computing will allow convoys, and even swarms, of drones to fly in computer-choreographed formations.  En route to the destination, electronically linked convoy UAVs can auto-adjust individually or as a fleet for changing conditions, and upon reaching their destination, execute sophisticated manoeuvres in performing their functions.

3) Learning curve escalation.  Going up the learning curve means attaining further mastery of the devices and their support networks, as well as earning additional insights on how to improve them.  From direct operating experience, knowledge about drone performance and mission impact will be fed back to further lower cost curves and boost technology curves.  On the ground, organizations will learn how well the devices work in humanitarian operations and how recipients respond to their use.  Once concepts and capabilities are proven, new goals can be envisioned.  Wholly original ideas for new drone classes and niche functions can be sparked, emboldened by the success of previous generations.



From these three dynamics and historical experience, one might predict how drone technology could evolve from its military origins and begin to migrate towards civilian uses.  This evolution will radiate along five major avenues:

Commercialization.  As cost economics of operating drones improve and the revenues and profits from civilian uses can be clarified, entrepreneurs and major companies alike will begin to offer services that could be financially sustainable.  Just as the invention of conventional flight catalyzed early mail, cargo, and passenger services, the nascent UAV experience could engender businesses that transfer the abilities being proven by the military towards civilian adaptations.  For example, existing commercial carriers could use drones to transport specialized payloads from a hub to exact locations, bypassing existing intermediate waypoints.  Remote areas now being served by conventional air links, such as rural Alaska and the Australian outback, could be supplemented by new drone routes that bring supplies or emergency functions.

Adaptation.  Capabilities that the military pioneered, such as surveillance and payload delivery, could be laterally converted to a broad range of uses in the civilian, peacekeeping, and law-enforcement realms.  Business imperatives to diversify revenues and earn back R&D expenses will incentivize the major military drone producers to offer civilian models.          

Potential users in the civilian and humanitarian sectors are sensing an opportunity to acquire new mission-enhancing capability.  The UN stabilization mission operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is reportedly seeking authorization to deploy drones over conflict zones to spot movements of armed parties and better enable UN peacekeepers to warn vulnerable populations, as well as to protect themselves.  Costs prevented a previous MONUSCO attempt to use drones, but with falling prices and greater supply, the UN is taking another look as the conflict escalates.  

The Canadian government is weighing whether to buy U.S.-made Global Hawk drones, adapted for civilian use, to patrol Canada’s Arctic airspace, in support of a policy to assert sovereignty rights in that region.  If the acquisition comes to pass, these surveillance drones might be further adapted to also collect Arctic environmental data linked to climate change.


Specialization.  The proliferation of technologies and their accessibility to a broad and diverse stakeholder community has spawned user groups ranging from grassroots hobbyists to major industry associations.  As UAV capabilities become more available and affordable, interest groups will begin to see how drones might solve existing problems.  As demand builds from these groups, niche markets will arise that attract specialist suppliers.  An example is the website, which has become a lively forum among amateur hobbyists and a marketplace for small UAVs.  Over time, some niches will grow large enough to become financially sustainable, other niches will depend on subsidization, and still others will fade away as a result of changing needs or unprofitability.

Innovation.  From the baseline of current experience with drones, insight and imagination from individuals and groups may spark proposals for pioneering uses.  Already among the NGO community there are groups such as, which aspires to start UAV networks operating in remote communities, such as Alaska and Haiti.  One Canadian group is seeking to develop a drone-based alert system for villages and regions in Africa at risk of sectarian violence.  As ideas for novel uses gain momentum, funding from government or private sources could be forthcoming to demonstrate feasibility.

Integration.  What is learned from successful pilot programs could then be brought into the mainstream body of experience.  As a rapidly evolving, even disruptive, technology, UAVs will challenge existing ecosystems within the aviation industry, as remote-piloted craft would fly in the same air lanes as piloted craft.  The rules of the sky lanes for both piloted and remotely piloted craft will have to be reworked to promote safety and accountability.  The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with producing a strategic plan to integrate American drones with existing, conventional aviation systems, and recently announced simplification of the process by which U.S. government agencies secure authorization for drone flights.

Cross-border flights will also provoke multilateral negotiations.  The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is beginning to establish the regulatory system that will eventually govern how drones will fly across national airspaces and how they will integrate with existing conventional aircraft. 

In the long run, airspace governance for drones will need to address a “PASS” framework involving the discrete and interlinked issues of privacy, accountability, safety, and sovereignty.  To do this, ICAO and governments will have to anticipate future uses of drone technology, including humanitarian operations, and then enlist the views and interests of a broad array of stakeholders.

These five avenues point to how humanitarian drones might come about.  Commercial firms may operate cargo-delivery drones and lease surplus space to aid groups.  Manufacturers might adapt military versions of UAVs and offer civilian versions that could serve humanitarian programs.  The U.S. military has created a medical delivery pod that can be carried on board an RQ-7 Shadow drone, which can overfly embattled troops and drop the canisters containing emergency medical supplies. Civilian versions could serve as “flying St. Bernards” that, for example, drop emergency canisters containing survival rations, GPS beacons, cellphones, flares, and first-aid items to stranded mountaineers ahead of manned rescue crews.

Paramount to catalyzing drone use is how they might help organizations attain their prime strategic goals, or how they might inspire them to seek new goals.  Drones’ multi-purpose potential can knit together partners who share a common purpose.  One synergistic endeavour is the Gates Foundation funding a Harvard-MIT drone prototype for vaccine delivery in developing countries, with advisory input from the World Health Organization.  Each of the three partners is intrigued with how the devices could advance the war against polio, measles, and many other vaccine-preventable diseases.  If prototypes prove successful, the rapid build-out of medical drone networks will give health leaders more options to counter a broader array of diseases. 

If the Gates-Harvard-WHO collaboration proves that drones can work, additional partnerships may be launched.  NGOs with a common purpose can pool resources to acquire and operate drones.  Other groups may seek to pioneer novel uses for drones, such as remote population counting or monitoring for signs of civil strife.

Surveillance capabilities are uniting Google and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a $5 million project to produce a new generation of "conservation drones" that would fly over African parklands to track and protect endangered animals.  For the WWF, drones provide a needed edge in the technology race against the ever-sophisticated tactics of poachers.  For Google, whose mapping technology is a dominant online force, experience gained from this venture may generate ideas for future map functions.

If these collaborations prove that drones can fulfill their promise, additional partnerships may be launched.  NGOs with a common purpose can pool resources to acquire and operate drones. One group's success may spark new applications: the WWF's use of UAVs to defend endangered animals may embolden others to experiment with similar functions in the human realm, such as remote population counting or monitoring for signs of civil strife.



For all the promise of UAV technology, its novel powers are generating questions and concerns as new applications are being contemplated.

Remote piloting and the lack of direct human contact at the destination point raises a concern that humanitarian drones might compartmentalize, or even sever, the human-to-human connection between aid workers and aid recipients, leading to a “dehumanizing” of aid.  This could happen if drones were used in a point-to-point fashion with no pre- or post-mission engagement with recipients, and would make long-term sustainability of that aid project vulnerable from the lack of feedback.

Humanitarian operations using drones will have to be designed with recipients’ interests as the pre-eminent focus.  Drones have the potential to be “force liberators” by freeing resources from back-line functions and redirecting them towards the front lines.  More aid workers shifted from the supply chain will reinforce the numbers that can directly help the stricken.  Information gathered by drones grant aid workers added situational awareness, enhancing their safety and allowing them more time to interact with communities.

Drones might be deployed as psychological morale-boosters, giving hope that help is on the way.  Sorties that can reach remote, disaster-stricken villages ahead of aid convoys can avert panic by dropping survival supplies and signalling pending relief operations.

While drones are not likely to totally replace the ground-based human judgment integral to aid operations, they can supplement conventional delivery systems, extend their reach, and boost frontline aid forces.

Another concern arises from the dual-use nature of UAVs.  The dual-use nature of flight platforms, conventional or not, can make it difficult to discern their underlying purpose, whether it be civilian or military.  The smallness and versatility of these airframes, proliferation of new models, and the exponential power of onboard electronics may make it challenging, or even impossible, at first glance, to accurately distinguish civilian from military craft.

As a result, dual use may complicate the finely balanced ecosystem operating among aid implementers, recipients, and governing authorities.  Governments in aid zones may curtail or prohibit drones from donor countries in wariness of their being used for intelligence-gathering, or even rapid weaponization.  Intended aid recipients may also be skittish of gathering to receive drone-delivered aid if they have been sensitized to military drone operations.  Aid implementers may hesitate to deploy drones in order to avoid incurring additional scrutiny or allegations that their UAVs might be diverted or subverted for non-aid purposes. 

For arms controllers, airframe and electronic versatility make it difficult to prevent their toggling from a civilian function over to lethal or intelligence functions.  Surveillance drones can either prevent aggression or facilitate it.  While the UN peacekeepers contemplate using them for monitoring combatant movements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are being used increasingly in conventional strikes in more world hotspots beyond Afghanistan and Yemen.  It is not just the U.S. that has embraced drone strikes: Israel immediately posted video footage from aerial surveillance craft flown over Gaza showing its successful missile strike killing the Hamas military chief.  Israel was so confident of the technical powers of its surveillance overflights that it warned Hamas “not to show their faces above ground.”

As capabilities grow for both lethal and peaceful uses, a new, specialized arms-control regime and a broad international regulatory system may have to be elaborated to segment the drone universe into defence and civil realms, and to verify functions.  New IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) systems for border-traversing drones may become required avionics. 

Cost pressure from R&D and regulatory compliance may induce makers from industrialized nations to test new drones in countries where regulation is relatively light.  In the United States, commercial pressures are pushing the FAA to open American skies to integrate UAVs with conventional aviation.  The complexity of the U.S. air traffic control, and the high costs of meeting U.S. regulations, may drive testing to areas where such constraints are much weaker.  Nations and localities with uncrowded skies may sense opportunity and seek to attract business by offering incentives for UAV testing.  But testing in impoverished zones may create a two-tier dichotomy in which highly technological countries benefit from the information learned from flight experiments conducted in less-advantaged countries.  Politically, this may set up conflicts between countries and companies over intellectual-property rights and the sharing of benefits derived from drone testing. 

Can the promise of drones for aid overcome the inhibiting concerns resulting from their military origins?  Promoting them for humanitarian missions will require a purposeful counterstrategy directed at “drone destigmatization.”  Internationally negotiated validation and verification procedures that separate civilian from military drones could be a step.  Confidence-building measures for civilian acceptance could include changing the sound profiles, standardizing visible markings of aid drones, or designating verified organizations as exclusive operators of aid drones.  Once their use accelerates, humanitarian drones will also need to be integrated into national and international regulatory regimes, as well as be adherent to codes and agreements governing aid programs.  Further education and cultural sensitization among intended aid recipients ahead of introducing peace-op drones will be necessary to avert instinctual reactions against the drones’ appearance and use.

Popular video clips of experimental craft performing intricate and elegant manoeuvres have set off much enthusiasm for their potential.  Against the stark global backdrop of suffering and strife, new generations of peace-op drones can become compelling instruments for international development.  Next steps will be prototypes and demonstration programs that prove their worth.  To unlock that potential, stakeholders (through advocacy) and leaders (through visionary governance) must remake current political and cultural views inhibiting drone technology’s inherent evolution towards non-lethal uses. 

Jack C. Chow is a former U.S. ambassador on HIV/AIDS and global health, and a former assistant director-general of the World Health Organization.  He is a 2013 fellow at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative.

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