In South Africa there is currently no space in the defence sector for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with only as yet unconfirmed reports of Defence Intelligence acquiring a handful.
The UN, on the other hand, is using them in humanitarian, development and peacekeeping operations with the UN Children’s fund (UNICEF) principal advisor on innovation, Christopher Fabian, stating “the promise of drones is tremendous”.
For UNICEF and other humanitarian and development agencies, he sees drone technology making a difference in three ways.
Firstly, drones can leapfrog broken infrastructure in places where developed transportation networks or roads do not exist, carrying low-weight supplies.
Second, UAVs can be used for remote sensing, such as gathering imagery and data in the wake of natural disasters like mudslides to locate where the damage is and where affected people are.
“I believe this technology will go through a few years of regulatory difficulty but will eventually become so ubiquitous and simple that it’s like a version of the cell phones you have,” Fabian said.
He also sees drones extending Wi-Fi connectivity, from sky to ground, providing refugee camps and schools with access to the Internet.
Although UNICEF’s use of drones has been limited to date, the agency is exploring ways to scale up the use of UAVs in its operations.
In June, Malawi in partnership with UNICEF launched Africa’s first air corridor to test humanitarian use of drones in Kasungu District.
Also with UNICEF, Vanuatu has been testing capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of drones to deliver lifesaving vaccines to inaccessible, remote communities in the small Pacific island country.
Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands spread over 1,600 kilometres. Many are only accessible by boat and mobile vaccination teams frequently walk to communities carrying all equipment required for vaccinations – a difficult task given climate and topography.
To extend the use of drones, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) have formed a working group. In addition, UNICEF, together with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), chairs the UN Innovation Network, an informal forum that meets quarterly to share lessons learned and advance discussions on innovation across agencies.
Drones are also used in other parts of the UN system. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its partners introduced a new quadcopter drone to visually map gamma radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, damaged by the devastating 2011 tsunami.
Last year, an IAEA-supported drone won fourth place in the 2016 United Arab Emirates Drones for Good Award competition, which received over 1,000 entries from more than 160 countries.
ROMEO, or the Remotely Operated Mosquito Emission Operation, met the competition’s aim of improving people’s lives. It was designed to transport and release sterile male mosquitoes as part of an insect pest birth control method that stifles pest population growth.
Some UN peacekeeping missions, such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), have deployed unarmed surveillance UAVs to improve security for civilians.
Drone technology can be a double-edged sword with UN human rights experts speaking out against lethal use of drones.
“Hardware itself does not violate human rights. It is the people behind the hardware,” Fabian said stressing the need to “make sure any technology we bring in or work on falls within the framing of rights-based documents,” such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
UNICEF has a set of guiding principles for innovation, including elements such as designing with the end-user.
For drone applications to spread further the UN has to have a strong role in advocating the technology and ensuring policy is shared with different governments Fabian said.
Additionally, governments have to clearly define why they need drones and what specifically they will be used for, while also building up national infrastructure to support their use.
In 10 to 20 years, drones might be “as basic to us as a pen or pencil,” is how Fabian views the future.
“I believe this technology will go through a few years of regulatory difficulty but will eventually become so ubiquitous and simple that it’s like which version of the cell phones you have rather than have you ever used a mobile phone at all,” he said.