Are These the Drones We’re Looking for?

How can drones change development work?
How can drones change development work?

The international development community is taking advantage of the large strides the technology sector has made in respect to drones. Drones have the potential to revolutionize assistance programs and could become a norm among development programs in the coming years. Just last week, IREX held a conference on the implications of drone technology for international development projects. Will drones improve development opportunities? What are their limitations?

Some of the advantages of drone use include:

  • Supply Delivery: This past year, Matternet began incorporating drones into its development program, using them to deliver supplies to rural areas in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Drones have the potential to make formerly inaccessible or hard to reach areas accessible. More people will have access to medical supplies, clean water, and food supplies.
  • Emergency Response: In 2013, the US National Guard used drones to assist firefighters in stopping forest fires near Yosemite National Park. Drones are versatile resources for emergency response. They can help stop forest fires, clear hurricane or earthquake wreckage, and deliver supplies to disaster or conflict zones.
  • Data Collection and Research: Sending drones into conflict zones is a much easier way to collect data on conflict size and police response without risking the safety of reporters. In more peaceful settings, drones can collect data on agricultural development, such as crop growth, or conservation initiatives, tracking wildlife and poachers.
  • Ease of Use: Countries benefiting from development assistance do not have the infrastructure challenges that face drone use in highly developed countries. For example, drones in Kenya do not have to navigate skyscrapers or large cities the way drones in the United States do. Some argue that because of this, developing nations are in the best position to take advantage of drone technology.
Drone protestors will be a large obstacle
Drone protestors will be a large obstacle

Regardless of the benefits, proponents of drone use face a long, uphill battle to general acceptance and adoption of the technology. One of the greatest difficulties is the military and Big Brother connotation associated with drone use. The US has primarily used drones for air strikes in conflict zones. A shift to more peaceful intentions will not happen without some suspicion. Officials in developing nations could question the drone’s true purpose. Is it actually here just to deliver supplies and collect data? Or, is it armed and conducting military surveillance?

Drone use could also remove a large human contact component of development programs. When actual human beings no longer deliver supplies to rural areas, the nature of development assistance changes. Drones will deliver medical supplies but they cannot explain to the community how to use them. Researchers no longer need to talk to farmers about crop patterns when drones can collect the same information. Successful development work is able to appreciate and account for different cultures and lifestyles. When drones become the primary worker, however, the interaction component so pivotal to development work suffers. Development work becomes more like a business transaction instead of relationship and capacity building.

Could the UN use drones for a more peaceful purpose?
Could the UN use drones for a more peaceful purpose?

Another potential, unintended consequence of drones is the hindrance to infrastructure development. Drones are a cheaper way to bring resources to rural areas than building a long, rarely used road. But the road would be a better long-term investment for the country and would encourage future development more so than a drone would. Using drones may discourage infrastructure development. Countries no longer have a reason to build access roads to more rural areas if drones become the primary mode of supply transport. Because of this drones are unlikely to be a sustainable solution to development problems.

It will be interesting to see how the international community incorporates drone technology into development programs and whether drones will ever be free of the military stigma. The technology could completely change development programs, but will it be a beneficial or detrimental change?


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