Charities and NGOs will add drones to digital toolkits: report

Third-sector can make positive use of unmanned aerial vehicles as tech for good, but should stay aware of potential ethical problems raised by drone use in service of good causes.

James Hayes | 7th Jun 18
Image shows drone flying over a mountainous landscape, representing the growth of humanitarian and environmental use of drones (Credit: Sorry Imkirk, Upsplash)

A digital technology think-tank has identified humanitarian aid and environmental protection as two of the key areas in which drones – a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – could be deployed for good causes and charitable activities.

Drones in the Service of Society, a report from not-for-profit the Foundation for Responsible Robotics argues that new uses of drones are emerging that could greatly serve benefit and serve society in numerous ways, and that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities stand to be among early beneficiaries of this emergent technology.

“Outside of industrial uses, drones have gained a bad reputation as tools for violations of human rights, breaches of privacy and irresponsible and dangerous uses by hobbyists,” said report co-author Professor Noel Sharkey, Co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and Emeritus Professor of Robotics and AI at the University of Sheffield. “That said, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Professor Sharkey added: “The responsible use of this technology could be enormously helpful to a range of humanitarian work and environmental protection initiatives. When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict, or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue.”

Drones in the Service of Society provides case studies for five important areas where drones can bring benefits:

  • Humanitarian aid: assisting relief agencies such as charities in the acquisition of data during humanitarian crises and delivering essential goods such as food and medical supplies.
  • Environmental protection: helping scientific and charitable institutions with observation of (often endangered) species as well as monitoring and wildlife protection.
  • Activism: helping activists collect information about societal injustices, such as pollution from industry, unjust livestock treatment, inadequate delivery of healthcare supplies, etc.
  • Emergency Services: search and rescue, monitoring disasters and crises, inspecting critical infrastructure, and finding missing persons.
  • Responsible journalism: reaching areas of international interest that might otherwise be inaccessible.

The report’s authors warned, however, that drone technology touches on so much of society that “robust research” is needed to maximise the service performed by drones towards the public good. But we need to get it right:

“The benefits of using drones in some circumstances can reap great benefits… But we need to ensure that we don’t overlook potential negative impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment that would undermine the benefits of the technology… There may be unintended ethical problems raised by the use of drones in the service of society which challenge the current approach to technological implementation.”