Drones: Propelling Sustainable Development

The word 'drone' often conjures up imagery and associations with warfare due to the heavy use of drones by the military. However, drones, which are often referred to as UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles, are being used more and more in other ways in society.

Autor*in Maaike Reynaert, 08.04.15

Recognising that drones offer numerous possibilities outside the military realm, savvy aid workers and environmentalists have started putting these devices to use towards sustainable development.

According to a report by the United Nations, the amount of countries using UAVs for military, commercial or civil purposes increased from 41 countries in 2004 to 76 countries by 2011. Over the last few years though, people have started to recognise the potential that drone technology offers beyond military use with these tiny devices harbouring first-class technology in a compact, mobile platform. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, drones can act as valuable tools in the fight against pollution and social injustice. Today drones are mailmen, security guards, first aid kits, radio stations… and, they can also be yours to own for less than 300 US dollars.

Since drone technology and its applications are in ongoing rapid development, this article is an attempt to get a grip on its multiple and dynamic technological and social impacts. Filling the gap between satellites and ground surveying, drones enable fast, remote access to a particular area, allowing activists, scientists and aid workers to compile reports, analyse situations and obtain data about a region, issue or disaster faster, more objectively and more securely than having teams of people on the ground. Beyond monitoring and observation, drones can also proactively be used to help get medical supplies to those in need, plant trees and monitor deforestation.

What Are Drones?

Originally intended as military devices, drones were invented to do the dirty work in war zones, performing airstrikes from vehicles that are unpiloted and thus eliminating any potential risk to aircraft operators. Some politicians defend drones by focusing on their ‘precision strikes’ but to many, the buzz sound of drones in conflict areas is the sound of death and drones used for military purposes have a controversial reputation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a drone as ‘a remote-less controlled piloted aircraft or missile’. The military uses the term UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems) to refer to drones. The United Nations calls drones used for environmental tasks ‘eco-drones’. Personal drones are sometimes to referred to as ‘civilian drones’ and are smaller than those used by the military. Since drones are accessible to the public, a new definition seems necessary. According to Michael Perry, manager of drone-production company DJI, devices can be called drones when they have a certain level of autonomy, meaning they can ‘fly, hover, or navigate without input from a pilot’. Following Perry, devices where the user, such as a hobbyist, has full control over its operation could technically not be called drones. Often, small drones for sale are called quadcopters, literally a helicopter with four propellers instead of one. Whether it is called Quadcopter, UAV or fixed-wing (which look like small planes) and whether you buy the Parrot AR drone or the Sky Master Mini RC drone, they all remain ‘robots that fly’ and their technological capabilities have seen them become more and more popular in recent years. In this article drones are defined as unmanned aerial vehicles that are being deployed for humanitarian and environmental development projects.

Phantom/GoPro Camera Quadcopter Drone taking flight

How Do Drones Work?

The predecessor of the drone, the remotely-controlled vehicle, was first patented in 1898, by none other than the genius Nicola Tesla. Unsurprisingly, the drone itself is technology-wise a brilliant invention but luckily a basic understanding of how a drone works does not require Tesla’s brain. Vijay Kumar from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, gives, in this TED talk, an overview of how drones, in particular the piloted quadcopter model, work. Lifted by four propellers rotating at the same speed, the drone will hover. The speed of the propellers is related to the altitude of the drone: when the propellers rotate faster, the drone will go up and when they rotate slower, go down. The drone moves from left to right due to a difference in speed-level between at least two propellers.

When remotely piloted, drones require diverse means of communication with controllers. This includes radio waves, in the case of large vehicles, or WiFi, for those controlled by a smartphone, and many options in between. Depending on how advanced the drone is, a certain amount of applications are built in, such as a GPS chip, various sensors and infrared systems, measuring tools and most commonly, a camera, among others. Due to their ability to take multi-angle and high resolution pictures, drones can also be used to create 3D models.

Drones’ ability to reach far-flung places at a relatively quick speed; monitor and collect data about a region or specific geographical area; and transport small cargo has caught the attention of activists and organisations working in the field of sustainable development. With high costs, security risks, poor infrastructure and lack of available manpower at times impeding work in the areas of disaster relief, wildlife conservation or conflict zones, drones present a huge opportunity to help aid workers and environmentalists carry out large-scale projects in a more resource-efficient, risk-averse manner. In this article, we divided drones being used towards sustainable development into three broad categories based on their application, namely surveillance and mapping; cargo transportation; and drones used as tools or appliances. Undoubtedly, there are devices in the market or in the making that do not fit in one category.

Eyes in the Sky: Surveying and Mapping

One of the biggest sectors where drone technology is being put to use is surveillance and monitoring. The advantages of using drones for monitoring include their flexibility, their ability to fly under cloud cover, their high resolution cameras, and different camera systems. Surveillance and mapping with drone technology is suitable for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, and can be used to tackle deforestation. Drones are able to survey large pieces of land (say within a protected area, the agricultural sector or a conflict zone) and there is a growing interest among journalists to use drones.


Robots are cheap workers. And they are faster and sometimes more accurate in inspecting large pieces of agricultural land (for example, to prevent fraud) than traditional methods of farm inspection are. In 2010, satellites took approximately 70 percent of the shots used to evaluate farm subsidy payments in the European Union. Although they can photograph large areas in detail, the shots are not always accurate. Cloudy skies and shadows from mountains can hinder satellite images. Because drones are so tiny and aerodynamic, they fly at much lower altitudes than satellites. They also have the ability to take pictures from other angles than merely from above.

Shot of agricultural land taken by a drone

The European Union is experimenting with drones in agriculture, in particular to evaluate farmer subsidy payments, in various areas such as the south of France and northern Italy. Farmers can use the flying objects as well to monitor their agricultural land themselves as can activist groups such as Animal Liberation, which used drones to film farmers’ land in order to check on animal abuse.


UAVs can immensely increase accessibility to remote places. In this sense, drones can greatly facilitate the work of journalists. There is already a quadcopter which can broadcast live images for around 15 minutes and can fly up to 50 km/h. It could be sent to spots where news is breaking or locations where it is too dangerous to send a reporter (such as nuclear waste areas or conflict zones).

With the prices of drones decreasing and an increasing amount of people are buying drones that are camera-equipped, drones could stimulate a more democratic form of civic journalism, whereby everyone can report from anywhere. The movement whereby surveillance tools such as cameras are being democratised is usually referred to as ‘sousveillance’. A good example is the case of the Occucopter. In New York 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protesters ‘turned their cameras back on the police’. When the police blocked the press during the riots, protestor Tim Pool flew his Parrot AR drone – dubbed the Occucopter – above the scene and, due to a modification of the software, livestreamed video of what was happening on the ground over the internet. Of course this raises issues relating to invasion of privacy however, the easier it is for people to get their hands on a drone, the more drones with similar objectives as the Occucopter will appear.

Land Management

The Swiss non-profit organisation Drone Adventures uses drones to map landscapes in development areas. One of its projects is in Namibia, where they use drones to survey the Savanna. The data collected is assessed and used to develop ways to improve land management in this region. The lightweight drone used by Drone Adventures has several multispectral cameras and is therefore suitable for counting rare vegetation and animals and the overall goal of the project is to use drones to develop an integrative monitoring tool that facilitates sustainable resource management and nature conservation in Namibia. The University of Wageningen in the Netherlands has a seperate UAV research faculty where drone technology is being developed specifically for use in land and water control.

Deforestation and Wildlife Conservation

Drones are also being used to tackle illegal logging and industrial deforestation. This is a major issue in the Peruvian Amazon, where an estimated 113,000 hectares of forest has been cleared every year since 2001. This also impacts negatively and directly on human health. In 2011, scientists from the US, France and Peru discovered that large areas of the Peruvian Amazon were being cleared to mine for gold. Mercury used during the mining process was contaminating the water supply and locals were suffering from mercury poisoning.

A project by the Amazon Basin Conservation Association uses drones to monitor the private conservation area Los Amigos. The fixed-wing drones are modified and have advanced autopilot functions to fly over the 1.4 sqm area. The drones can fly about 16 kilometres per hour and in a programmed pattern. The team behind the project hopes to detect destruction during its early stages so they can stop it before its too late.

Similar to illegal logging, the illegal trafficking of endangered species can be more easily traced using drones and the idea to use drones to monitor wildlife is becoming increasingly popular. Besides tracking poachers, drones are also deployed to count populations of animals. The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge is asking clever people around the world to come up with an idea to tackle the problem of wildlife crime in the Kruger national park in South Africa. The challenge is to construct a drone under the $3000 which can operate for hours, recover in the bush, communicate with a station and locate poachers.

Disaster Relief

An estimated 120,000 land mines are still scattered throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, remnants of the Bosnian War. Although conflict ended two decades ago, the undiscovered land mines dotted around the landscape are responsible for about 20 deaths per year.

The European Union carried out two development projects, ICARUS and TIRAMISU, wherein drones were used to simultaneously search for survivors and dislocated land mines following floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2014. The resulting landslides shifted the minefields. The drones used in these projects were md4-1000 Quadcopters, produced in Germany and were put to work by the Belgian Royal Military Academy in the flooded area. According to Haris Balta, researcher from the Unmanned Vehicle Center of the Academy, they conducted about 20 flights in two weeks. Some of these flights were conducted manually and some with automatic routes. The quadcopters sent damage reports, very detailed maps and pictures that helped locate landmines.

Using drones to map an area is also becoming gaining traction in post-disaster zones. Drones are sent out to capture images and gather data which aid workers then use to help plan reconstruction and relief efforts. The company Pix4d produced a software that is used by non-profit organisation Drone Adventures, who have used the platform, to create 3D models of the landscape following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

Mapping Fukushima

Flying from A to B: Cargo Transportation

Amazon is ready to deliver packages under two kilograms by drone and in Switzerland this month is running a test project to deliver mail and packages of up to one kilo over a distance of 10 kilometres. In developing countries, the use of cargo drones could be interesting for transporting medications and other vital supplies.

In spring 2014 the humanitarian organisation Doctors without Borders called Matternet, a UAV firm based in Silicon Valley. They needed an alternative way to transport tubercolosis diagnosis samples in Papua New Guinea. The roads were bad and blocked due to the rainy season. Matternet is a private enterprise making drones especially for development aid. They did some trial projects with Doctors without Borders and the World Health Organization in Bhutan. In 2015, Matternet designed a drone exclusively for transportation, called the Matternet ONE (to be released later this year once it clears safety tests with the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The diagnosis samples in Papua New Guinea were transported from a central lab to rural villages and back by a drone which could fly up to 28 kilometres (17 miles), carrying a package weighing around one kilogram.

The longer a distance a drone needs to fly, the bigger its battery needs to be to provide the necessary power. A drone that could fly endlessly would need a battery so heavy that it would not be able to take off. In order for Matternet to carry out its work, landing stations are necessary to function as hubs where packages could be dropped off and picked up. Given their short battery life, multiple drones (each flying short distances) would need to be used to cover long distances with packages. The market for cargo drones is already competitive. Recently, drone manufacturer Flirtey became the first to legally and successfully transport medications in the United States.

In areas with poor road infrastructure, drones could deliver necessary supplies fast and cheaply to local communities. For most regions in the African continent, the use of cargo drones in the future could be a solution to the infrastructure problem, enabling them to leapfrog traditional infrastructure development (as outlined by this article by the BBC). This solution would also be cost-effective: the World Bank estimates that Africa needs to spend 38 billion dollars each year on infrastructure to keep up with its current level of development.

Active on the Ground: Drones as Appliances

Depending on which features and software are built in, drones prove to be useful devices for not only observing from above or transporting goods through the landscape but also as appliances or work tools to carry out certain tasks on the ground too. The following cases show drones’ ability to be more active on the ground to assist and augment work carried out by humans.

Precision Agriculture and Forestry

Ben Gielow, spokesperson for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said that ‘agriculture, far and away, is going to be the dominant market for UAV operations’. Drones can help through so-called ‘precision agriculture‘, whereby geospatial techniques help identify variations in a farmer’s field. Drones are a cheaper and preciser alternative to satellites, enabling farmers to track which areas need fertiliser or water, for instance. This is better for the environment than to spray the whole field as a preventative measure. On the local scale, in Japan, Yamaha has designed a drone specifically applicable to precision agriculture. In the steep landscape of the volcanic island nation this device would be handy for farmers and would help cut down operation costs since it only fertilises the vegetation that needs to be fertilised. Elsewhere, there are even plans in the making to design a drone that could plant seeds for reforestation.

The British startup BioCarbon Engineering is planning to use drones to ‘reforest’ one billion trees per year in areas where trees are removed due to illegal logging or industrial deforestation. They want to use drones to realise the plan in the following way: the drones fly at a low altitude and do an aerial survey, creating a 3D map of the area. After analysing this data, a pattern for seeding the soil will be made. Then, the drones will be loaded with small canisters filled with germinated seeds in a nutrient-rich gel. At a maximum of two metres distance, the drone will ‘fire’ the pods into the ground. The pods will break and the seeds can take root. After planting, the drones can be used to monitor and care for the growing plants by spreading necessary nutrients for the soil.

Disaster Response

It can be difficult for aid workers to access highly dangerous and disaster-hit areas, or areas that have recently been affected by disaster. Here, too, drone technology can help with projects and initiatives being developed that, in some instances, see drones act in a kind of ‘first responder’ role.. With a carbon-fibre cage surrounding it, the Gimball drone is able to bounce against objects such as walls. The drone can approach disaster zones very closely and find missing people, buried under debris after a car crash or the collapse of a building. It won the UAE Drones for Good Award at the beginning of 2015. Intended as a disaster-rescue tool, the Gimball drone is like any other quadcopter with propellers and different cameras. The innovative part is its ‘cage’ that enables the drone to continue flying after it hits a wall. When other drones might break, the Gimball is able to be piloted through very tiny passages. Moreover, it won’t harm people with its rotating propellers, so the cage protects both itself and others.

Although the Gimball can’t pull buried victims of disasters out of their situation, it can find them, communicate directly with aid workers and might put the victims at ease, since they will know they have been found when they see the flying object. Other drones of a similar type are fitted with sensors that can read temperatures and humidity while searching for people. Their sensors still work with two centimetres of ash above them – ideal in a region affected by volcanic eruption.

Medical Services

At the Technical University in Delft, the Netherlands, industrial design student Alec Momont created the ambulance drone, a tiny helicopter that flies to a certain spot after someone dials the national emergency number. Besides the fact that the ambulance drone needs less time to arrive, it is a compact flying toolbox as well, allowing bystanders to use the drone’s defibrillator themselves. According to the graduate student, the ambulance drone can fly at a speed of 60 kilometres per hour and be on the spot in less than two minutes instead of the usual ten minutes needed by a regular car. Although the ambulance drone is not yet in use, it will hopefully make it to market in less than five years. Momont imagines a similar ambulance drone with oxygen masks that could be brought to people who are caught in a fire.

The Flipside: Electronic Waste, Sustainability and Privacy

Drones offer a lot of potential to be used for good causes. If drone technology continues to develop as fast as it does today, it would be fair to judge not only its actions but also its environmental impact, analysing such things as who produces drones and what kinds of materials are used to make them; whether the materials used are sustainable; and what happens to drones once they reach the end of their lifespan (i.e. do they contribute to e-waste or can they be recycled?).

Personal quadcopters are powered by a battery but operating drones under more eco-friendly conditions is something that is already in the works. Google’s Titan’s Solara-50 (which looks to provide internet from the air) flies on solar power. Unfortunately, the prototype that was tested in early 2015 crashed in New Mexico. It is unclear what caused the crash but the question about whether it’s possible to successfully operate drones using renewable energy currently remains open. Smaller personal quadcopters would definitely lose their flexibility if a solar panel spanning 50 metres were attached to them, but the rapid innovation in drone technology provides hope that there will be more eco-friendly drones on the market soon.

The Need for Regulation

These days, almost anyone can operate a drone. The United Nations raised concerns regarding ethical and legal issues surrounding the increase in the usage of drones. Although the UN praises UAV technology and in particular the miniature UAVs implemented in development and peace missions, the report on Performance Peacekeeping said that its deployment and use ‘must be fully transparent from the start’. In a policy paper called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response, the UN voiced hesitations about using drones in conflict zones, arguing that they might be hard to distinguish from military equipment and local communities might be suspicious or fearful of the flying objects. The policy paper pleads for ethical agreements regarding the supply of drones in development aid since many drone companies are now also supplying the military.

Besides the technological advantages of drones, the United Nations also foresees that small UAVs could encourage humanitarians to engage and really cooperate with local communities instead of working remotely to survey them.

Another report analysed the issue of data collection and management, saying that the manufacturing, export and licensing of UAVs need to be regulated on a global scale to ‘ensure that purpose remains ethical and legitimate and does not violate public safety and privacy’, highlighting the need to regulate data access and storage.

Questions around regulation become extremely necessary when looking at the case wherein five hobby drones hampered the fire brigade in conducting its work during a forest fire or the case where drone technology called ‘Snoopy’ enabled a group of hackers to steal information about people from their mobile phones.

There is already a debate in the European Commission to create a common safety regulation framework that should loosen the use of civil drones from 2016 onwards. These enforcements should be regulated and fine-tuned by aerial authorities such as the American FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and European EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency). An international network of aid workers and hobbyist UAV pilots has already organised under the name UAViators. It acts as a volunteer network based on a code of conduct for the responsible usage of UAVs in humanitarian situations.

The Future Outlook

Various examples of drones in development projects show the possibilities of using them in the field of humanitarian aid and environmental protection. Their ability to access, survey and collect data from a region of concern in record time and at minimal cost is almost unparalleled and nowadays, the use and applications of drone technology is being expanded to make the devices active tools in humanitarian and environmental protection work. Drone technology develops faster than authorities can regulate. Regulation is necessary as the United Nations pointed out and drones continue to open new discussions in the global, ongoing debate surrounding technology and privacy. Used properly and with the correct regulation in place, drones can help augment work carried out in the field of sustainable development.

In our RESET Special ‘Drones and Satellites for Good‘ we looked at many of the projects using drone and satellite technology in the field of sustainable development. A full list of articles can be found here.

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