Global Strategies with Community Value: The Red Cross Experiment with UAVs

  • Emma Schwartz
  • May 4, 2015
Global Strategies with Community Value:

Photo: Red Cross

This year, the Red Cross and partners are conducting experiments to test the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to temporarily restore communications networks post-disaster, to deliver critical relief items to isolated communities and to map urban risks.

As part of our ongoing webinar series on the use of UAVs in emergency response and international development, Abi Weaver, Director of the Red Cross Global Technology Project, recently shared insight on the development of the organization’s global UAV strategy and asked for advice and feedback to help inform pilot use cases. Abi also presented key learnings collected from citizens about their perceptions of UAVs.

The Red Cross began to explore the potential of UAVs in 2014, starting with the use of aerial imagery to document the impact and results of a ten-year program in tsunami-affected countries in Southeast Asia.

“We used this imagery to elevate our storytelling and share programming results with donors, stakeholders and policymakers in a really interesting way,” said Abi.

Since this application, the organization has done smaller test flights in controlled environments as a way to enhance global work in participatory community mapping and mapping risks. Now, Abi and her team are looking to formalize these experiments in a way that looks at the Red Cross’ utility of UAVs and also how to support community access, management and ownership.

“Specifically, what is the potential for the people affected by emergencies around the world to leverage these tools?” said Abi. “We created a dialog series looking at not only UAVs but other emerging technologies and their potential to strengthen the coping skills of people in emergencies – that is, giving them access to information, helping them form connections, helping them organize, access infrastructure and services and generate economic opportunities.”

These dialogs occurred over a six-month period on every continent, and were focused around key markets where the Red Cross felt there was a marriage between the industries and governments’ use of UAVs and other emerging technologies as well as consumer interest and awareness.

The team held town hall sessions to ask citizens about their attitudes, understandings, questions and concerns around emerging technologies. They also consulted these citizens on potential use cases.

What they found was that people were genuinely curious about UAVs; although not well informed, they were “incredibly optimistic” and hopeful, and saw real potential for these tools in their lives.

“There was an overwhelming disconnect between what my peers and my colleagues thought the community felt about UAVs and the way that they actually felt,” said Abi. “Surprisingly, there was more skepticism and concern from the humanitarian sector than there was from the public, and the use cases the community generated were far more ambitious than those that we were considered by humanitarians.”

Consultations revealed that community members were skeptical of the private industry and national governments’ use of UAVs: contrastingly, they were more likely to trust UAV use by local, municipal authorities and humanitarian organizations. Access to data is at the core of this mistrust, as citizens felt data would be more open and accessible if collected by trusted local authorities.

Feedback from these community discussions is driving the organization’s partnerships and influencing strategies for information and data share going forward.

“Community members have become our partners in advising our organizational strategies, and we’re in turn applying our expertise to support them in their community strategies.”

Use Cases

The Red Cross and partners are prescribing to the following guidelines to drive their approach to current pilot projects:

  • design with the community;
  • support local manufacturing and development of tools;
  • empower social enterprises and local entrepreneurs in data analysis and management;
  • partner with multiple sectors so learning crosses industries; and
  • examine political implications and playing an active role in influencing policy and regulation at all levels, and supporting community members in doing so themselves.

Use cases are being designed and performed by multi-sector innovation teams and include:

1. Temporarily restoring communications networks after disaster. The Red Cross works with several organizations to explore how this would work (entertaining questions like, “What types of UAVs are most appropriate?” “How many?” and “ What’s the appropriate mechanism for providing mobile and Internet coverage to the community?”). An innovation team is currently working on developing technical requirements and designing an overall program that will soon be piloted in Ireland in a community that experiences regular floods.

2. More sophisticated risk mapping. The missing maps project is an initiative to map 100 communities around the world to understand risks and vulnerabilities in dense, urban communities. Information gathered will help in the design of effective programing with community members; this experiment will take place in Asia later this year.

3. The delivery of critical relief items to isolated communities. The project team is looking into the prioritization of greatest needs in the first days after emergency and the identification of best mechanism(s) to carry payloads. The strategy designed will support the coordinated and rapid deployment of these supplies in the immediate aftermath of emergency.

Learnings from these experiments will be shared online at To participate on any of these project teams, contact Abi at  

A global strategy

Throughout this experimental stage, the Red Cross has been working in close collaboration with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world to make sure perspectives are in sync and supportive of one another.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop a set of principled guidelines that are consistent with other humanitarian and UN organizations, and to share these guidelines with the private and public sector as a way to leverage our humanitarian experience and ensure that other industries are not creating more vulnerability or harm in their commercial or public uses of these tools,” said Abi.

She also said they’re planning for scale and want to ensure these technologies are fully integrated in preparedness, response and recovery initiatives and that communities are also planning for this integration.

“This whole experiment [with UAVs] is forcing us to reevaluate our entire approach. It’s really disruptive in the most beneficial, positive way. It’s not just our technology systems it’s disrupting –-it’s forcing us to really think about our workflows and how we collect and process information and the different roles we have within our organization as a whole.”

Click here to listen to the recording and view webinar collateral >

Our website uses Cookies to enhance your experience and to measure, understand, and improve our website. By continuing to use this website you agree to the use of Cookies. If you do not agree, you can decide to disable Cookies in your web browser. Learn More About Cookies
Got it!