April 7, 2017 | By Cristina Serra, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Class of 2017
Drones are everywhere these days. From the spectacle of Amazon-owned delivery drones at South by Southwest to the use of these devices by Hollywood producers to capture aerial footage, drones present a variety of opportunities for businesses, military officials, and civil society (there’s even such a thing as droneboarding: getting towed by a drone while on a snowboard or wakeboard). However, there is another realm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that is far less talked about: drones for social good. Drones present a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize the international development sphere and scale social impact in a number of ways. In fact, people around the world, from small communities in northern Guatemala to large metropolitan areas in Central Africa, are already implementing drone use into their daily lives.
Frederick Mbuya, for example, is a consultant at the World Bank who works on open data and is using drones to improve traffic congestion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In a rapidly expanding city with poor infrastructure, traffic can cause tremendous economic costs and safety hazards. Drones provide data through aerial imagery and large scale topographic surveys, which helps government officials prevent traffic jams, avert citizens from entering flooded areas, and design safer, more effective transportation infrastructure. Mbuya is very hopeful of the technology’s potential, explaining that a $2000 drone can produce a dataset worth $50,000 in the hands of city planners.
Although this example is still in its embryonic stage, the application of drones for international development extends far beyond traffic in Tanzania. Innovators are offering ideas to use drones to deliver vital emergency supplies to previously inaccessible areas, produce video reports during disasters to coordinate relief-efforts, and track drought patterns to improve farming practices. Private companies, like Matternet and Flirtey, are using drones to deliver everything from building supplies and food to medicine and biological samples. Zipline International recently partnered with the government of Rwanda to use its fixed-wing cargo drones to deliver medical supplies to remote health clinics in the East African Nation, proving the efficacy of public-private partnerships in leveraging drone potential.
While there are countless uses for drones in the international development sphere, particularly for logistical support, mapping, and monitoring, national and local governments are not always receptive to the new technology: Nigerian drone permits cost over $4000, Zimbabwe regulations prohibit drone-use for delivery, and Uganda restricts drone importation. Security and privacy concerns tend to dominate the subject of unmanned robotics, often prompting new legislation that severely hinders the potential of drones for social good.
As drone technology continues to evolve and as innovators and government officials find new ways to utilize them, it is important to provide clarity in these applications so that nations can make the most informed decisions when issuing drone legislation. Similarly, enabling local capacity for UAVs in developing nations can increase communities’ willingness to use them, in tandem with effective, constantly updated regulations to ensure that these drones are put to use ethically and safely.
Kay Wachwitz, CEO & Founder of Drone Industry Insights, recently explained that “the drone industry as a whole is moving forward — the process itself will create opportunities for operators and organizations across the world that want to leverage the technology.” While the hype around drones for entertainment purposes is certainly well-deserved, the truly ground-breaking opportunities lie in their ability to drastically transform the way private and public actors can help their communities. If we look beyond speedy Amazon deliveries, international spying capabilities, and SuperBowl light shows, we’ll find a multitude of ways that drones are already doing social good. They are changing our world for the better, and there are still many more opportunities to be discovered.