What should happen next?

Connecting Red Cross Red Crescent drone users

It’s good sometimes to see what others are doing, how they are using the drones, in which situations they’re using the drones. Maybe we can do the same here, and it could really help us.
- Mamadou Gueye, Senegalese Red Cross Society

Multiple Red Cross Society interviewees expressed a desire to connect with other drone users, via the Red Cross network. They felt that sharing knowledge and advice amongst one another would be of great value: this was particularly important to Societies that were only just beginning to use drones in their work.

With this in mind, the Red Cross should consider the development of means of connecting the Red Cross drone users identified in this research with one another. Initially, it may be most realistic to form these connections via the use of an online group or via an email list. Users could be encouraged to introduce themselves, describe how they currently use drones and how they intend to use drones in the future, and to list any questions, concerns, or thoughts they might have regarding drones and drone use.

If resources allow, it would be valuable to coordinate regional drone meetings or meet-ups, in which members of different national Societies can meet in person, conduct workshops and trainings, and experiment with drone technology in a real-world setting.

Creating trainings and materials

In our partnership with Senegal Flying Labs, first, we want to identify how to use the drones, and in what operations or on what occasion we should use them, like doing assessments, or finding areas where there’s migration happening. After that, we want them to train us on using drones, about tracking data and using it. And after that, they can advise us on finding a drone that’s good for each operation.
- Mamdou Gueye, Senegalese Red Cross Society

Drone technology is complex and ever-changing, and it can be difficult for interested Societies to know where to start. They need information on how to pick out a suitable drone for their operations, how to maintain that drone, how to train pilots, how to work with drone data, and more. Our call for increased dialogue and collaboration between Societies should be accompanied by the development of training materials, references, and other information that can be shared within the movement, helping those with an interest in drones learn more. Real-world meetups, workshops, and trainings should culminate with the release of widely-available materials, which ideally should be translated into multiple languages.

Promotion of open source technologies for drone operations

We mostly use drone imagery to enhance the quality of our maps. We release our final imagery to the public domain with OpenAerialMap, and to the OpenStreetMap tasking manager. The map that volunteers use and discuss with the community during capacity assessment is the final product of a lot of different documents. | - Husni Mubarok, Indonesian Red Cross Society

Drone data processing software is expensive. Multiple societies interviewed for this report reported that they are forced to rely upon demo or free trial versions of popular UAS data processing software packages like Pix4D and Drone Deploy, as they are not currently able to afford to purchase the software outright.

Open source and free software for drone data processing, analysis and sharing is widely available, but few societies contacted for this report said that they currently use it. This may be due to awareness: organizations may not know that free options exist. This may also be related to ease of use: open source and free software can be more difficult to use and more technically complicated to install than paid software packages.

several Intel NUCs with POSM and Missing Maps stickers.

Fig. 28 Intel NUCs running open source POSM and OpenDroneMap software to process drone imagery. | Credit: PMI.

There are other benefits to uploading drone data to public platforms like OpenAerialMap (although the possibility of that data being used in unethical ways should always be considered). A number of drone-using organizations can work together to create high-resolution base maps of the areas that they operate in, reducing the need for each unit or organization to collect their own drone data. Some organizations, like the Indonesian Red Cross, regularly re-use the drone imagery that they collect for other projects and mapping activities.

Informations sharing about free and open source software should be a key component of RCRC wide information sharing regarding drone technology. Red Cross drone users that are comfortable with using open source software should work to raise awareness of this software’s existence among other Societies. They should consider developing quick-start guidelines for using this software that can be disseminated in multiple languages. They might also consider offering personalized advice and technical support to organizations who wish to begin to use free and open source software (as their availability allows).

Imagery on OpenAerialMap.

Fig. 29 Imagery of a barangay in the Philippines uploaded to OpenAerialMap.

Developing organizational standards for drone use

We have to know how we are going to standardize the operation and maintain the competency of our drone pilots. We need to define the standard of regulation they are going to follow, what will be the organizational framework with which we will work? Because flying the drone is the easiest part, we have to make sure how we do flight planning, prepare the mission, assess the safety, how we manage for data control, for data privacy…
- Alexis Cléré, ICRC.

The humanitarian drone sector still lacks a centralized set of best practices, technical guidelines, or ethical standards for the use of drones. The Humanitarian UAV Network “UAViator’s Code of Conduct” is the most well-known effort to craft a set of universal best practices and ethical guidelines for drone use in humanitarian contexts. However, these guidelines have not yet been formally adopted across the humanitarian sector: humanitarian organizations are largely developing their own, internal standards at this time. As one example, the ICRC’s Data Protection Handbook, released in 2017, describes best practices for securing drone data and ensuring the privacy of drone users.

The RCRC global network should build an initial strategy for developing and disseminating a set of general ethical guidelines and best practices regarding drone use. These guidelines will provide new drone users with a clear starting point as they consider how best to use the technology: they will also help ensure that all RCRC drone users are operating the technology in ethical, safe ways. These guidelines should include guidance around a variety of topics, including best practices for public interaction, the ethical use and collection of aerial data and images, procedures for crashes and accidents, guidance for assessing drone pilot competency, and more. These guidelines should also take into account current research - both academic and other sources - around drone use in disaster response and humanitarian aid.

Once initially released, these centrally-developed guidelines could then be expanded upon, modified, or localized by individual National Societies. These guidelines could be regularly updated, discussed, and improved upon by means of regular convenings or meetings. They should also be informed by ongoing research work into humanitarian drone use over time, as well as work by other NGOs in the sector. Ongoing drone-related activities by RCRC societies should be regularly reviewed, ensuring that both successes and failures are documented and taken into account so that best practices may be updated over time.

A processed scene in the WebODM interface for OpenDroneMap.

Fig. 30 A processed scene viewed in the WebODM interface for OpenDroneMap.

Supporting further research into humanitarian drone use

At the time of writing, little academic or non-academic research work exists on the operational use of drones in humanitarian and disaster response settings. This lack of objective information makes it difficult for organizations to develop well-informed sets of best practices and ethical guidelines around drone use. The RCRC global network should consider prioritizing supporting research work by National Societies or resource centers to add to the overall body of knowledge around humanitarian drones. National Societies who use drones should be encouraged and supported in writing up their experiences and disseminating these documents across the wider network.

Sharing airspace (and information) safely

Sharing the skies safely is of essential importance for humanitarian drone users. The ICAO and a number of nations around the world are currently developing strategies for UTM (unmanned traffic management) systems, which will integrate small UAS into the broader airspace. These systems will likely use different technical and operational techniques to make UAS visible to manned aircraft, air traffic monitors, and other users of public airspace. Red Cross drone users should keep up with these upcoming developments in national and international UTM systems, and should take them into account when developing internal best practices and procedures.

Red Cross drone users should also consider their own strategies for sharing flight plans and drone-collected data with governments, other aid organizations, and with the public. Some of the societies interviewed for this report have already developed information-sharing agreements or strategies with other organizations, giving them access to the drone data that they collect.

Internal ethical guidelines and best practices should include guidance on information sharing with other organizations and with flight regulators. Training for Red Cross drone pilots should include comprehensive information on how to work with flight regulators, manned aircraft pilots, other humanitarian organizations, and others. Systems should be developed that permit Red Cross drone pilots to log flight plans with flight regulators and with other aid organizations.

Developing drone logistics

First, we want to build capacity internally, to have an in-house group of pilots we could deploy at any time, and the drones and equipment to process data and share data and the final product. An entire unit, that’s the end-game, that can be used for drone deployment. Hopefully, not just a unit that serves Kenya Red Cross, but one that can serve all humanitarian actors, to be kind of a champion in that.
- Safia Verjee, Kenya Red Cross
If each field unit buys a drone and uses it 3 times a year at maximum, it will then just sit in a box until the next mission. So with different logistics hubs equipped with drones, we can more efficiently disseminate drones according to the needs.
- Alexis Cléré, ICRC

RCRC National Societies need to find ways to use drones efficiently, and that may mean that not all RCRC units or organizations need to own and operate their own drones and their own teams of drone pilots. Efficiency may mean finding ways to share drone hardware and drone capabilities across different units within a country, and even outside of it.

Some organizations, including the New Zealand Red Cross, the Kenya Red Cross, and the ICRC, are considering developing drone programs that can operate both outside of the RCRC global network and outside of their home countries. Some are also considering the benefits of partnering with other organizations, such as WeRobotics Flying Labs, to collect data on their behalf.

Drone DJI Matrice 200 with FLIR XT2 thermal Camera.

Fig. 31 Drone DJI Matrice 200 with FLIR XT2 thermal Camera. | Credit: Kai Brunner, German Red Cross - Kreisverband Limburg e.V..

Developing methodologies for effective data use

In the context of our national society, we need more capacity, more capabilities with people with this knowledge and more tech, more computers. Most of all, I think we have to explore how the capacities and methodologies already being used [by the Red Cross] can be transformed, into the new era.
- María Fernanda Ayala, Ecuadorian Red Cross

The act of collecting data with a drone is merely the first step in a much more comprehensive and complex process of data processing, data analysis, and decision-making. RCRC societies need information that clearly links drone data with better outcomes.

One of the seven transformations that are part of IFRC’s Strategy 2030 is digital transformation; it calls for integration of digital and emerging technology to enable the organization to, among other things, democratize access to information. The IFRC should review existing methodologies, such as Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA) and Community Based Surveillance (CBS), and consider how drone data might be best integrated within these and other mapping and assessment activities. In some cases, new methodologies may be needed. In others, it may be possible to adapt existing methodologies to accommodate drone data.

Supporting development of humanitarian-friendly drone regulations

We want to work closely with the government to see if legislation can be passed, maybe to allow regulation on flying drones, so that it’s clear, when we acquire drones we can fly them in a democratic process.
- Joel Kitutu, Uganda Red Cross Society
As the Kenya Red Cross, we work as an auxiliary to county and national governments. We have a very good working relationship with them, and they’re aware of the nature of our work… It took a little bit of advocacy from our senior management, our secretary general, to say to the government: ‘We have an opportunity to try drones, and here’s how it will benefit regulators and the defense forces. You’d be involved in training too, so we’d all build our capacity. As a country, we’ll be better prepared and ready to respond at any time- and it will help us save lives, our main mandate.
- Safia Verjee, Kenya Red Cross

Drone laws can be difficult to navigate, but RCRC National Societies often enjoy excellent reputations with regulators in their own countries. Multiple interviewees reported that they or their Societies were actively engaged with efforts to create or alter the drone laws in their countries, to develop regulations that balance the ethical concerns that surround drone technology with disaster responders needs.