The sky's the limit for non-lethal drone applications

The sky's the limit for non-lethal drone applications

As with other dual-use technologies, non-lethal drone applications are increasingly becoming both a cause for concern and an exciting area of development.

The application of non-lethal drone technology in the safety and security sector is growing in cities and regions around the world, and increasingly it is not traditional state actors who are leading the way. The latest devastating earthquake in Nepal has had drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) teams deployed from around the world to provide much needed aerial footage for situational awareness and needs assessment. Canadian charity GlobalMedic has deployed three drones provided by Aeryon Labs, while the U.S.’s Team Rubicon has deployed its Tenzing Recon Team, equipped with drones from Halodrop and analytics software from Palantir Technology. India’s National Disaster Response Force has also contributed to the UAV effort, with some of the first units on the ground (or in the air, rather). The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), initiated by the Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI), is coordinating the drone deployment and data collection effort in Nepal alongside the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). QCRI has been at the helm of other initiatives to test and develop the application of drones for humanitarian purposes, ranging from payload transportation to information verification.

Outside of the humanitarian space, the past three years has seen the rise of drones in a variety of more local safety and security related contexts. Police in Lucknow, India plan to use drones armed with pepper spray to disperse unruly crowds, while the London airport police plans to use surveillance drones for counter terrorism operations. A number of state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have applied for the Federal Aviation Administration's drone authorization program or are known to have borrowed Customs and Border Protection drones for a variety missions (see these agencies mapped here). In the Netherlands, a fleet of drones have been used by authorities to track down cannabis plantations and track burglars, while a TU Delft student has designed an ambulance drone with a built-in defibrillator. Other examples from around the world abound (see a good summary by The Hague Security Delta)

While the potential benefits of non-lethal drone technology are undeniable and proven, there are also many downside risks, which have revived the long-standing privacy versus security debate. Further, with drones becoming easier and cheaper to build, it is not only government agencies that should be a cause for concern. A number of worrying incidents in France, Japan and the U.S. have already occurred, spurring further debate over the future of drones. At the same time students, hobbyists and drone enthusiasts are a large source of innovation in this domain, as seen at the recent Drones for Good competition. Many UAV proponents are therefore taking care to ensure that the variety of operations are reliable and transparent. The UAViators ‘crowd sourced’ Code of Conduct is a good example of this. In the U.S., and other countries, legislators are working hard to balance the risks and benefits of drones, developing measures that permit certain uses, while reassuring citizens with restrictions to drone use by various actors, such as in Arizona, Virginia and Montana.

In a field where technology develops fast, and the sky is quite literally the limit, innovators, researchers, legislators and citizens must work together to develop legal frameworks that ensure drones have maximized public value. Cities, regions and countries can benefit from sharing knowledge not only regarding innovative life-saving drone applications, but ways to ensure that the wider public is fully aware and supportive of limitations and potential opportunities. This includes shifting and ‘de-securitizing’ the prevailing public discourse so as to include, and thus promote, promising non-lethal drone applications.