Humanitarian UAV Missions: Honing in on Best Practices

  • Emma Schwartz
  • July 28, 2015
Humanitarian UAV Missions: Honing in on
Photo: DroneAdventures

Over the past two years, humanitarian response actors have participated in a number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missions in diverse disaster response and recovery efforts. Based on these experiences, a set of best practices for the use of the relatively new technology is slowly coming into focus.

This month, we continued our webinar series around the use of UAVs in development with Patrick Meier, internationally recognized thought leader in humanitarian technology and innovation and current Director of Innovation at QCRI. Patrick shared lessons learned and emerging best practices for the use of UAVs in humanitarian response based on recent operations in Haiti, Philippines, Vanuatu and Nepal.

Patrick’s interest in sharing best practices around humanitarians’ use of UAVs was first peaked after Typhoon Haiyan. He was struck by the number of UAV teams operating in the Philippines, but also struck by the fact that these teams didn’t always know about each other and, for the most part, weren’t sharing imagery with local authorities or communities. Most surprisingly, there was no code of conduct for the use of UAVs in disaster response. To address this gap, Patrick and his team at QCRI launched the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators, “to promote the safe, coordinated, and effective use of the technology in a wide range of humanitarian settings.”

To date, UAViators has attracted 1,400 members from over 70 countries around the world—300 of which are UAV pilots. Members have access to a growing global repository of assets and expertise, as well as hands-on training and certification opportunities. A working code of conduct and best practices document can be found at

Patrick covered a lot of ground during his presentation, and here are the key learnings and takeaways:

1. Community engagement & capacity building are compulsory

All four use cases that were shared emphasized the importance of community engagement.

“Building local capacity and having local community engagement is not an option, it is absolutely mandatory,” said Patrick.

In Haiti, organizations trained local communities to operate UAVs for disaster preparedness and response. Within 24-48 hours after Hurricane Sandy, a local team of Haitians was able to do a rapid damage assessment of affected buildings. The assessment, which was done in partnership with IOM and the government, was shared with the local government and the international humanitarian community and would not have happened without the involvement of the local community.

Similarly, after Typhoon Haiyan, the Mayor of Tacloban and local communities were involved in conversations around how to use the technology to monitor recovery and reconstruction.

“It’s not only a matter of providing expertise on how to operate these UAVs when you’re doing the local capacity building, but the imagery data transfer analysis is equally important as well,” said Patrick. “It really needs to be a comprehensive, holistic training approach.”

2. Partnership makes everyone’s life easier

Partnership with the local community, government, and humanitarian organizations ensures a smoother operation. The benefits of a well-executed partnership may be best illustrated in the case of collaboration between UAV teams, the World Bank and the local government in Vanuatu after category 5 Cyclone Pam.

The World Bank enlisted UAViators to recruit UAV teams to carry out aerial surveys to complement field based disaster assessment surveys. Patrick and team used the network’s roster of 300+ pilots to identify the most qualified teams in the region, and ultimately recommended two groups: Heliwest Group and X-Craft.

Heliwest and X-Craft got preauthorization to bring in the technology, establishing a firm base of trust and respect with the government from the get-go (and also ensuring an efficient trip through customs). Both teams met with government representatives and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) immediately upon arrival, where they agreed on standard operating procedures.

“Having that kind of upfront civil-military collaboration was absolutely imperative,” said Patrick.

The teams also had a direct link to air traffic control, and shared planned flight routes every night for approval. They’d also call to confirm flights just before take off, even though they’d already been approved, and call back again once flights were complete.

“This kind of collaboration and coordination is what enabled us to operate UAVs in a complex air space literally right along the runway of the commercial airport alongside military and commercial aircraft,” he said.

Establishing a clear chain of command and communication protocols is also important. This means having one person in charge of safety and operations when there are two or multiple teams working towards the same mission. After the earthquake in Nepal, there was no single point of contact with the Nepali government that UAV teams could go to – and lack of communication led to unfortunate consequences such as arrests and the confiscation of UAVs.

3. The Mission & data needs should be clearly defined

Understanding the mission and the specific data needs from the onset is crucial to success in all cases.

In Vanuatu, for example, the team ended up with final imagery that was “complete overkill.”

There’s a trade off between the resolution of aerial imagery and how much ground can be covered. The Vanuatu team was capturing aerial imagery between 4-6 cm resolution, when in retrospect they could have easily done 20-cm resolution and still carried out the mission.

“We were still able to cover about 10% of the impacted areas, but later found out the World Bank ultimately wanted more geographical coverage than high resolution,” shared Patrick. The lesson? “Even if the World Bank, the UN, or humanitarian partners tell you what it is they need, question it and make sure you understand where the data is going to go, how it’s going to be used, and where it’s going to be shared, because often humanitarian organizations won’t necessarily know… and the highest resolution possible isn’t always the answer.”

4. Data are collected to be shared

During the recovery stage of Typhoon Haiyan, non-profit Drone Adventures worked with Swiss humanitarian organization Medair to get high-resolution aerial images. Within 24 hours of flying the UAVs in affected areas, Drone Adventures would go to local banner shops and print the imagery on durable waterproof banners that they would then share with local authorities and communities.

Such positive and inclusive data sharing practices were not exercised more recently in Nepal, which resulted in resentment from local communities. UAV teams did not seek permission, explain what they were doing, or share the imagery with local communities. Dozens of requests for imagery from OCHA, UNICEF, the World Bank and others also went unanswered – a huge missed opportunity for the broader international development community to benefit.

5. Lack of regulations is not a carte blanche

Nepal did not have any UAV regulations in place before the earthquake, which produced a number of problems in disaster response efforts. Some UAV teams interpreted the lack of regulations as a green light to operate and do whatever they wanted, and the UAViators code of conduct was largely ignored.

Response organization Global DIRT didn’t take the lack of regulations as a carte blanche – they instead approached the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and proposed standard operating procedures, working directly with them throughout the response effort.

In May, the CAA released formal UAV regulations, and UAViators has since provided detailed feedback on the document to help guide the document’s iteration. 

As done in previous disasters, UAViators set up an operations page with relevant information to guide UAV operations in Nepal, and UN/OCHA publicly asked UAV teams to liaise with the network. UAViators partnered with 15 different teams across the private sector and NGO space to actively promote the code of conduct’s “do’s and don’ts” and issues around regulations.

“The UAV network was being used as a for data needs and available resources on the ground,” said Patrick.

UAViators has also recently organized a first of its kind three-day Policy Forum in Bellagio to develop guidelines for the safe, effective and coordinated use of UAVs.

To hear more about the experiences in Haiti, Philippines, Vanuatu and Nepal, listen to the recording or view Patrick’s collateral >>

Contact Patrick on twitter @PatrickMeier, or use hashtag #UAViators to start or join the discussion

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