If someone gets ill in Contanama, Peru—a remote village in the Amazon rainforest—the nearest pharmacy is 50 miles away. The journey takes six hours by road. But medicines can be delivered by a small drone—or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)—to the local doctor in 35 minutes.

This technological breakthrough, like many others in history, was originally designed for use in war. Developed by the United States and the United Kingdom during the Iraq conflict, drones are becoming a mainstay of organizations delivering humanitarian aid to remote developing world communities. For example, last month drones surveyed the damage from coastal flooding in Peru, sending video footage otherwise too difficult to obtain.

The same month, President Donald Trump rolled back rules in order to make drone strikes even easier, including lowering the threshold for civilian casualties and pushing against the theology behind just war theory. Punctuating this shift from Obama-era policies, a disputed drone strike in Syria killed 42 people in mid-March. (The US government says it killed al Qaeda militants, while activists and local residents maintain that it attacked civilians at a mosque.)

Christians have debated whether drones should be used in war at all. The wartime reputation of drones means they are not always welcomed in aid efforts either.

In 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal killed 900 people. Fifteen different international teams used drones to respond. But legal issues and perceptions by local communities hindered their effectiveness.

“At one point in the beginning of May [2016], it looked like the Nepalese government was heading towards a complete shutdown of drone operations across the airspace,” wrote Andrew Shroeder from We-robotics in Crisis Response Magazine. The ban didn’t materialize. But workers still faced resistance from authorities and people in affected areas.

Given the military history of drones, what do Christian humanitarian organizations think about using them? Can swords be turned into ploughshares? Here are three views.

“Confusion is a Critical Problem”

“World Vision does not use UAVs in its humanitarian work at this point. However, we are currently involved in pilot projects using drone technology to explore the best ways that drones can be used to help those affected by emergencies.

Drones are particularly helpful following disasters in surveying areas that have been affected, but where access is limited. They can help provide information like images and videos of routes that are accessible and safe to use, or the conditions of people that are in areas that are difficult to access.

Article continues below

World Vision has taken the position that UAVs, while helpful in response to natural disasters, should not be used at this point in conflict settings where humanitarian drones are too easily confused with military drones. [They] are virtually indistinguishable from the ground by civilians.

It is critical that humanitarian agencies are neutral, impartial, and independent in their operations from any military player. Humanitarian work becomes compromised when communities perceive that aid workers have military or political agendas, so that confusion is a critical problem that requires additional thought before the technology is widely implemented in conflict settings.

~Amy Parodi, spokesperson, World Vision

“We will be looking to responsibly innovate”

“Understandably, we are quite cautious in adopting the use of UAVs. But we are increasingly seeing potential applications for them. So far, we have used them a few times to collect video to be used to communicate with our supporters. We have plans to use them during future emergencies to help us respond to disasters, where often an above-the-ground perspective can be helpful. In the past (at other organizations), I have used them to map communities and do hazard assessments. So there is potential for us to do that here, too.

Some larger NGOs and INGOs are starting to use them to do sophisticated post-disaster emergency mapping, or even to deliver small packages. Tearfund doesn’t work at this scale or in this way, but as capability increases I am sure that we will be looking to responsibly innovate. The incredible thing is that with ‘off-the-shelf’ hobbyist UAVs, we can still help those we work with to collect useful information that can inform their decisions.

I think that responsible and safe use is the key, while allowing people a space to learn and experiment with them. This experimentation shouldn’t be done in the midst of a disaster where people are in need, but before then. Organizations using them also need to develop plans and processes to help set minimum standards of usage. This is complex because of the different legal frameworks in the countries we work in, but there are many ways NGOs can ensure that they are safe and responsible with them.”

~Jonathan Stone, global resilience advisor, Tearfund

Article continues below

“The eyes and ears of the teams on the ground.”

“Cross International used UAVs fitted with cameras to support the assessment of the damage in Haiti caused by Hurricane Mathew. They were able to act as ‘the eyes and ears’ of the teams on the ground. The UAVs sent back data on damage to homes, schools, hospitals, along with the state of the roads.

However, because UAVs in some countries are associated with the military, there needs to be caution in using them, particularly in areas where there has been conflict. Using smaller-sized devices, which are more closely associated with hobby drones, is less threatening to local people.

Larger drones for package delivery are already being tested by companies like Amazon and UPS. That technology will probably develop quickly, and the various safety implications will be overcome. However, larger and heavier devices will be much more expensive and more complex to pilot, and so may only be deployed by the very large NGOs.”

~Mark Mosely, senior director, Cross International

David Parish has worked in aviation management and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.