A UN Unmanned/Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is taxiing in at Goma airport following a successful flight during an official ceremony with USG for UN Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous, 3 December 2013. © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

A UN Unmanned/Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is taxiing in at Goma airport following a successful flight during an official ceremony with USG for UN Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous, 3 December 2013. © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

How the UN is Learning to Love Drones

It’s one of modern technology’s biggest public relations problems: the ever-increasing popularity and proliferation of drones. Drones, both those oriented towards the consumer market and those pitched towards the military and industry, hit the headlines every week – with recent reports ranging from a small consumer-level drone sparking a football match brawl between Serbian and Albanian fans, to revelations today that the UK will deploy advanced, expensive armed drones to battle ISIS in Iraq.

Most people, well-acquainted with the march of modern warfare in South Asia and the Middle East, associate these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with destruction and violence — spooky fighters criss-crossing the sky and “eliminating” targets with little regard for human life and sensibilities.

But as peaceful organizations around the world are beginning to realize, camera and sensor-equipped drones also have immense potential for non-violent uses, and the United Nations, for its part, is already exploring the possibilities.

How has the UN already used UAVs, and how will they likely work with this new technology in the future? Here’s a few recent examples, and some thoughts on how drones will likely be incorporated into United Nation’s operations in the not-so-distant future.

While drones (provided by other governments) have been used in some joint surveillance and mapping missions since 2006, the true turning point for the UN’s usage of drones came in February 2012, when UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme conducted a mapping survey of rebuilding efforts in Haiti with camera-equipped UAVs. Experts analyzed the data, looking for important points such as debris hazards, water drainage capabilities, the construction of new housing, and other relevant information.

UNOSAT deemed the effort “successful” in a press release, with mission director and UAV pilot Josh Lyons deeming the effort “incredibly satisfying,” resulting in “aerial imagery of an unprecedented spatial resolution right there during the deployment.”

The UN’S next foray into official UAV usage came in December of 2013, when the UN Security Council approved the launch of surveillance drones over the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hoping to monitor human activity in the deeply forested and hard-to-access region with the oversight of the UN peacekeeping.

Capable of flying for 12 hours and with a range of over 150 miles, the camera-equipped drones have a range of interesting uses. Equipped with night-vision enabled cameras that are also able to detect heat signatures, able to ascertain where refugees are going and for which reasons, to deal with changing environmental obstacles, and to provide previously unknown levels of situational awareness. That’s not all: it’s been shown that they act as a visual deterrent to violent armed groups, making them think twice about entering the area.

The future of drone usage in United Nations operations is guaranteed to be interesting. The UN’s two existing, approved UAV use cases have gone well, and it’s likely that more and more of these missions will be introduced in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a novel technology, obstacles remain in the path of a UN-led drone revolution. Some countries – including the United States – have restrictive (and often rather nebulously enforced and written) regulations on the usage of UAVs and where they can go.

In many more parts of the world, regulations simply have yet to be considered at all, meaning that humanitarian UAV users may find themselves drafting the rules as they go along – a process that could foreseeably be hastened in the event of a disaster or conflict where UAVs will prove particularly useful.

Training and expertise for UN and UN affiliated drone users will also have to keep pace with the ever-changing innovation in the industry. Both the technology and the regulations surrounding it are changing at a remarkable pace, and successful humanitarian UAV deployments will depend on flexibility and quick thinking.

Perhaps the most important barrier to the widespread adoption of drones is popular perceptions: these flying machines still make many people more than a little nervous, for both safety and personal privacy reasons. Private citizens aren’t alone: many world governments have voiced concerns over who will have access to and be able to control the data that these drones will routinely gather.

Outreach programs and other efforts to educate and comfort both the public and the decision makers granting (or removing permission) to fly will need to be created and carried out.

And permission will be key. As US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized in her statement supporting the UN’s recent peacekeeping missions in the Congo: “This would only happen with the consent of the country or the countries where the mission would operate, and their use would not impact in any way on sovereignty.

If the UN and other peaceful organizations want to use drones as a regular part of their aid activities, they will have to take pains to make the public realize that these flying machines will not harm them — nor will they invade their privacy as their missions are carried out. International leaders will also have to be reassured that their sovereignty won’t be tacitly violated by these increasingly popular eyes in the sky