Violent atrocity beyond the realm of journalist access? Bear witness via aerial surveillance. Vaccine delivery in mountainous village with no cold chain? Propel freeze-packed parcels over the peaks. Difficulty obtaining specific parts for medical device repair in a remote region of the world? Drop off a 3D printer and let the Internet of Things spring forth from the empty vale.
To preface, I am optimistic about the potential drone use holds for all of the above purposes. But I am skeptical of whether entrepreneurs and hobbyists presently operating in this space are capable of achieving these goals, and whether interested funders are creating a space governed by rules and incentives that will guide the actors towards success – and, indeed, how success might be defined. That said, I’d like to present some challenges that as far I know have not yet been confronted in hopes of prompting a more nuanced conversation about the realities of humanitarian drone use.
1. A UAV by any other name…
Ultimately, the success of any humanitarian drone program will be limited by perception of those on the ground. Some of the most forsaken rural places in dire need of humanities aid are, by no coincidence, those home to more traditional drone targets (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen spring to mind).
How will intended beneficiaries differentiate drones delivering goods and services from the less-savory sort (by color, perhaps, or banner?)? Will competing companies maintain consistency in the sake of service or diverge in the name of branding, and if the latter, how will that be managed? What happens if a different entity – perhaps one with nefarious intentions – elects to use those signals as a Trojan Horse? How will poorly-equipped local defense systems differentiate between the delivery of a food aid shipment and that of a GBU-12?
The potential for poor design here is enormous: the most recent analogue that pops to mind is a debacle from the early 2000s, where humanitarian relief packets in Afghanistan were clothed in the same canary yellow as cluster bombs.
2. Pilots and pilots: Can we make money from this, and is that the best model?
Two constraints come into play:
a) Without delving too deeply into debates on the ideal role of the state, it should be said that provision of basic needs (food, shelter, health care) in times of want or disaster presently lies within the realm of responsibility of most governments in high-income countries. In places where states lapse, this role is filled by international bodies.
b) The talent needed to guide unmanned vehicles carrying life-saving cargo across hazardous terrain, guard against commandeering (pirates of the future, anyone?), and prevent them from becoming projectiles requires enviable chops in mechanical and software design. In possession of said chops are men and women with many, many attractive options for employment.
The large, traditional international donors in the humanitarian space are often reluctant to fund R&D on the scale necessary for such an endeavor. Yet these tasks are, fundamentally, not something I would like to see entrusted to a public company’s social good side-gig (Amazon, for example). A contract-based model could enable government access to high-quality technical staff (see: Palantir, any defense contractor ever) while simultaneously leaving the complex responsibilities of managing unmanned vehicles in international airspace to the state. I’m open to other options: for example, an organization with strict dedication to a double bottom line could conceivably manage commercial deliveries and funnel profits toward humanitarian use.
The most widely-acclaimed humanitarian drone company in existence at the moment is Matternet, a social enterprise out of Singularity U and Silicon Valley; you can catch a video of a 2012 field trial in Haiti on their website. They haven’t published much about their business model (or, for that matter, about other trials since 2012) so it’s not entirely clear how they’ll sustain operations. More tangential participants include IDEO, which has recently hosted a salon entitled “Drones for Health” with contributors from Partners in Health (there are many good points in that link, by the way, that I don’t touch on here).
3. Spin & Tailspin
As a wonk who holds firm faith in the fundamental utility of government, I think adoption of UAVs for aid delivery and disaster relief should be an absolute no-brainer for the (surprisingly large) humanitarian arm of the military in terms of improving public relations, as it were, in areas where drones are presently operating and with allies who oppose their use (tl;dr everyone but Israel and Kenya). This, however, risks potentially counterproductive politicization of aid.
These are not insurmountable problems. But they illustrate the complexity of this market, and despite press and fanfare, I don’t think any existing organizations or programs have confronted these practical considerations to the extent necessary to scale beyond pilot without collaboration with governments. Drones and their cargo pose public-sector dilemmas and can be used to confront public-sector challenges, and when it comes to humanitarian drone use, policy needs to step up to bat before rules in this realm are written by private industry.