The ICT4Peace Foundation just released an excellent report by Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meier on the use of UAVs for peacekeeping operations. My foreword is reproduced below. The full report can be accessed here.
Helena and Patrick are two of the most thoughtful individuals I know of interrogating the opportunities and challenges around the use of UAVs for non-combat operations around peacekeeping, peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. At the invitation of Patrick, I was a founding member of UAViators.net, which aims to “promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs for data collection, payload delivery and communication services in a wide range of humanitarian and development settings”.
On behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation and for some years now, I also curate a magazine on Flipboard looking at the use of UAVs for non-lethal uses.
What is a drone?
That seemingly simple question will elicit a spectrum of responses depending on context and exposure to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Some responses will describe what a UAV is – it’s colour, shape or silhouette in the sky. Others will focus on its sound – from afar, and when hovering close by. Too many, with fear, anxiety or hesitation, will recount stories of the most horrific violence associated with the term. A few will speak to the potential of UAVs in the theatre of humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. And yet, the body of evidence around the use of unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UUAVs), in comparison to drones used by the military for offensive operations, is comparatively weak.
Through compelling visualisations like Out of Sight, Out of Mind by Pitch Interactive – looking at drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2013 – the significant human cost of drones in kinetic warfare is painfully highlighted. The flip side to this violent association is a growing interest in and deployment of UUAVs around humanitarian emergencies. While no longer embryonic (fairly robust voluntary guidelines, operational frameworks, best practices have all been developed already) the study and practice of UUAVs in theatres outside of war is evolving apace. New actors in the form of humanitarian aid agencies as well as private corporations are entering the domain of UUAV operations, while researchers, activists and peacekeepers alike are seriously interrogating the potential for and challenges around UUAV use.
Innovation is taking root – 3D printed UUAVs, custom designed to carry specific payloads, are coming out of the lab and into the field. UUAV generated imagery can now be processed in increasingly sophisticated way, including in the generation of 3D flyovers of large areas. Increasingly affordable, rapidly deployable and easily recoverable, UUAVs have shifted the discourse of UAVs from the awful legacy of drones to a more peaceful uses, by actors interested in saving rather than taking lives.
With this expansion of non-lethal use cases has come whole raft of technological advances in UUAVs themselves – from vastly improved on-board optics that allow for sharper images and HD video to advances in battery technology and flight avionics, that in turn have increased air-worthiness, safety and flight durations. From DIY kits to off the shelf, flight ready UUAVs, these incredibly durable machines are now used for everything from documentaries and wildlife patrol to urban search and rescue operations, cross border migration monitoring, policing, illegal logging, farming and peacekeeping. A magazine on FlipBoard I’ve curated, on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation, for around two years around the use of UUAVs is a undeniable record of significant invention and innovation, embracing not just mediagenic Kickstarter projects and large corporations, but also remote communities and small NGOs.
With this mushrooming of actors comes attendant risks, and these are dealt with by the authors comprehensively in this paper. For the best of intentions, UUAVs can lead to the worst of outcomes if their use isn’t carefully contextualized, and their deployment plus operation sensitively managed. With the democratization of UUAVs, and add-on technologies, serious challenges like the relatively easy weaponisation of off-the-shelf UUAVs will grow, as well as the use of UUAVs by non-state actors and certain arms of government for surveillance, and of course, continuing military operations.
What then is the responsibility of peacekeepers, peacebuilders and humanitarian aid workers to use UUAVs in a manner that doesn’t exacerbate violence, existing inequalities, injustice and discrimination? What are the ethics around the deployment of UUAVs and in particular, the use and reuse of imagery generated by them? To whom are UUAV operators responsible to – local communities, civil society, their respective aid agencies or operators, private corporations, local government or non-state actors? And if the answers to these questions requires – quite urgently, given the pace of UUAV development and deployment – more robust interrogation of best practices, operational guidelines and ethical frameworks, who will lead such processes? Do communities, captured by UUAVs, have access to this information, and if not, why not? What governs data retention, use cases and re-use conditions around UUAV acquisitioned imagery?
The authors of this report go into these questions and flesh them out by exploring, inter alia, compelling case studies, emerging best practices and input from experts.
I have no doubt UUAVs will change the way we engage with aid, and so much more. Even a cursory reading of this timely, well-researched paper flags two key points – UUAVs will continue to evolve. Along with this comes the enduring responsibility to protect the most vulnerable from their abuse and misuse. This paper is the start of a global as well as hyper-local conversation.
We hope you will join in.
TED Fellow alumn
Special Advisor, ICT4Peace Foundation