Few technologies have disrupted everyday life in the 21st century the way drones have. With advancement and innovation in technology, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly known as drones, are used in almost every sector imaginable- from military and defence uses to aesthetic photography. Moreover, reports suggest that drones played a key role in providing essential medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, with governments initiating relief missions utilising drones.
Skeptics, however, fear that an unregulated, increased use of drones would lead to a panopticon structure of society, with the state (or a private profit driven entity) gaining easy access to the private lives of citizens. This, coupled with general concerns about safety, citizens freedoms and the potential for disruption (such as the Gatwick Airport being shut down due to drone interruption) is enough to make one wary about whether drones could actually serve public good.
This article aims to highlight some benefits that civilian drone use provides, and attempts to address the concerns around this technology. Following which, it provides an overview of policy guidelines that would robustly promote drone use for public good.
Drones for Good
The broad categories of drones for public good around the world can be divided into Environment and Sustainability, Art and Social Movements, and Health and Development.
a. Environment and Sustainability
Drones have become essential for forest conservation. Before drones, satellite imagery was used for aerial photography. However, drones are more efficient given that they are more mobile in low-level airspace, their image quality is better and they allow for more specialized surveillance such as thermal imagery, topographic mapping etc.
Drones have been used in myriad situations. Given their speed and efficiency, drones provide critical aid in the detection and prevention of forest fires. Thermal imaging drones are useful for identifying and tracking animals, especially endangered animals (including whales, tigers and rhinos) and prevention of tree diseases. Drones are also used for identifying and preventing poachers, illegal felling of trees and monitoring wildlife population. Kaziranga National Park was the first wildlife conservatory in India to implement the use of drones for detection of poachers and monitoring the Rhino population. AI powered drones also assist in aerial imagery, mapping and data processing of potential threats to wildlife (especially since the data is relayed in real time). Drones also aid in mapping the changing patterns of rivers, soil erosion etc. In 2020, the Indian Government became the first government globally to track locust swarms to effectively launch control operations.
Drones have also been used for ensuring environmental accountability. China has used drones to monitor polluting industries and drone footage showed a Texas meatpacking plant illegally dumping pig blood into the river. In Canada, an E-Drone research project was initiated where the drone periodically collects data about the pollution in the air and subsequently implements pollution abatement solutions to reduce the air pollution.
b. Art and Social Movements
Drones are revolutionizing the way films, tv shows and photographs are shot. Not only do they provide higher quality of images and enable capturing of varied perspectives, but the technology is also used to make a political statement. In 2015, Graffiti artist Katsu used a drone to mark a huge billboard of Celebrity Kendall Jenner’s Calvin Klein ad as an artistic way to symbolise disruption of capitalism’s intrusion in our everyday lives. In the 2013 film Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese used drones to give a voyeuristic view of a party scene, emphasizing the gluttony and divide from the rest of society. Additionally, drones for filmmaking are more cost effective than helicopters and other instruments for aerial shots, thus making it more accessible for an artist's vision to come to life.
Drones are also assisting in the reconstruction of historical buildings. In the restoration of the Halberstadt Cathedral in Germany, drones aid in site assessment. This helps determine the areas requiring immediate attention and particularly vulnerable and decaying structures. Such an exercise was previously expensive and next to impossible to undertake by humans given the fragile status of historical structures weathered by time. Drone footage combined with digital twin technology assists in the recreation of a digital blueprint to better map out the restoration process to reconstruct and preserve the past.
Drones are becoming increasingly popular in journalism given that it allows a journalist to be closer to the action, and it becomes a critical tool during periods of media censorship. Accordingly, drones have also become the citizens voice and eyes during mass protests in the US, Syria, Bulgaria, Russia etc, especially when governments try to manipulate the facts or censor the protestors.
c. Health and Development
Drones played a pivotal role in assisting countries combating the COVID-19 pandemic. While drones have been used for the transport of essential medical supplies, blood supplies and vaccines in remote locations of Africa for quite some time, in 2020 their use for vaccine delivery became even more prominent. According to the World Health Organization, drones not only helped in the transportation of medical supplies and lab samples, they also helped in aerial spraying of disinfectant in public areas and in monitoring public spaces during lockdown periods. In October 2021, the Indian Government launched the 'i-Drone' for vaccine delivery to rural parts of India, which comes shortly after the Telangana State Government launched its ‘Medicine from Sky’ Project in September 2021.
Drones are also crucial in providing humanitarian aid to disaster stricken areas such as Haiti and the Philippines. Moreover, the United Nations Peacekeeping Troops utilize drones for monitoring the movement of refugee populations.
In the oil and gas sector, drones are used for aerial inspections and site modeling, thus enabling cost effective and safe operational data. The predictive capabilities combined with the ability to safely retrieve critical data is what makes them the most effective technology for this sector.
To efficiently utilize aerial mapping technology, the Indian Government has launched Svamitva or Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas. The aim of this initiative is to improve agricultural research for increasing produce, provide access to healthcare and upskill the rural population for secure livelihood.
Given that the civilian use of this technology is nascent, their widespread use is not widely trusted. The following section highlights some prominent policy features that regulators can enact to address citizens' concerns.
Advancing Civilian Drone Use
With the increase in drone use comes an added burden on states to better equip themselves with policy and material infrastructure for a safe and inclusive ecosystem for drone use. For example, there needs to be minimal technology and quality regulations that prevent hazardous drone use (such as crashes with aircrafts). This section attempts to highlight policy considerations governments can implement in pursuit of the same.
The World Economic Forum lays down several initiatives governments can take to securely increase civilian drone use in their country. Key features include performance based regulation (hereinafter, ‘PBR’) model, policy prototyping and public-private data transparency. According to the Forum, a PBR model is when “regulations developed to combine risk profile and safety performance, address the management of risk, and ensure compliance”, thus allowing governments to holistically implement drone regulations that prioritize safety and promote development. In Rwanda, PBR for drones led to an increase in drone operations and expansion of its domestic drone industry. Policy prototyping stems from acknowledging that drone technology is constantly evolving and so should the policy, thus continuous revision or assessment provisions are a part of drone policies. Switzerland, for example, continuously adopts the updated Specific Operational Risk Assessment by JARUS. Public-private data transparency provides stakeholders with open-source data that enables technological innovation and engages the community, as was exemplified in Tanzania. Such transparency also allows citizens to know how much of their data is being collected and the purpose that it is for, thus fostering accountability.
The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration’s open access toolkits are designed to provide information to pilots about the drone laws as well as tips that should be followed for safely using drones. According to the regulatory authority, such information would enable pilots to be better informed and equipped during their flights, thus potentially minimizing hazardous drone incidents.
The European Union adopted the ‘Rules and Procedures for the Operation of Unmanned Aircraft’ Regulation in 2019, and implemented it in 2021. According to the Regulation, it is mandatory for all operators and remote pilots to be aware of all EU and national regulations related to safety, privacy, data protection, liability, insurance, security and environmental protection. By mandating an understanding of data protection and privacy for drone users, the Regulation ensures the protection of individual’s rights to privacy and safety.
Thus, policy considerations that involve all stakeholders, are transparent and compliant with international aviation and safety norms would increase the use of drones for public good. It also has the potential to transform the development of an economy.
An analysis of six years of non-government drone data in the US showed that civilian use of drones for spying and crime is very rare, and when it does happen it does not go unnoticed (or unpunished). Drone technology is not inherently malicious, and its civilian use is seen to be in concurrence with societal values and boundaries.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution entails rapid innovation at an unprecedented scale, and drones are making their presence prominent during this period. With the rapid expansion of drone use, new public good uses would keep developing. A robust drone policy involving aforementioned factors would also potentially transform an economy and promote the well-being of citizens. Given its recent acceptance in the public imagination, it is imperative not to be deterred by safety concerns of drone use, but instead embrace the technology and implement safeguards wherever required.
The views expressed above are solely of the author.