By Daniela Porat

Drones have a bad reputation. Executors of targeted killings and tools of surveillance, military-grade drones are not governed (yet) by a standard jurisprudence and represent the future of limited war, in all its glory and shame. But they’re not all bad.

flickr-7414675214-max_1024In the summer of 2011 the Canadian government approved and facilitated the use of drones, produced by a private Ontario robotics manufacturer, by Libyan rebels in their revolt against Moammar Gadhafi. They may become the weapon of choice in the fight against poaching, and they may even be employed to achieve humanitarian ends. Some deride the latter notion as naïve or impractical.

I spoke with Christopher Tuckwood, executive director of the Sentinel Project, a not-for-profit dedicated to genocide prevention, on why he thinks drones may be able to empower people in conflict zones, enhance the capacities of NGOs to fulfill their mission and ultimately save lives.

Why should we get over the stigma drones carry and explore the possibility of using drones for peaceful purposes?

I think the military uses of drones distract a lot of people, and they don’t necessarily separate the fact that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can carry weapons from the fact that it can do a lot of other things as well. We’re essentially talking about glorified remote control airplanes. There are a lot of things that drones can do that would be very helpful to humanitarians, whether in human rights, delivering aid or what have you. They have capabilities that are useful, and there’s nothing about their nature that makes them inherently dangerous or harmful.

On the potential use of drones for humanitarian purposes, you argue that although some supporters of the technology rightly suggest that drones can be used to “bear witness” and compel the international community to act, this prospective purpose is too idealistic and narrow. How else can drones advance humanitarian efforts?

There’s nothing wrong with documentation and the idea of “bearing witness,” and certainly if doing that leads to intervention, then that’s great. But the fact is, historically, we’ve seen that simply documenting atrocities doesn’t really bring about the desired effect of inspiring meaningful intervention. There’s no reason to believe that drones would be any different. Satellite imagery is starting to be used by different organizations for documentation, and it has value, but it still hasn’t inspired that kind of response.

Our interest with the Sentinel Project is a lot more focused on what we can do with technology to help communities at risk help themselves. Oftentimes there is no outside intervention, or if there is, it comes too late.

UAVs have the capability to go places that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to go, to do things that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with other types of technology. Drones would augment our current efforts of early warning and information gathering and dissemination. At the moment, we focus a lot more on open sources (i.e. information that is available online, through social media and reported by human networks on the ground). I just came back from doing some fieldwork in Kenya where we were setting up some of those local human contacts in conflict-affected areas.

If a small UAV could be given to a community at risk to do surveillance of a surrounding area and at the micro-level provide early warning of an approaching militia or approaching military force that is going to attack them, that gives the community that much more lead time to react.

The use of drones by a foreign institution requires the consent of the host country. How would your organization go about getting consent from a hostile government, a government perhaps committing the human rights abuses in question? Would it be possible to provide local communities with that kind of technology directly or through third parties?

We just recently started to think through those questions and not necessarily answer them but think of potential answers. One of the things you suggested was providing the technology through some sort of arrangement with local communities. So it’s not that members of the Sentinel Project or some other organization would go somewhere and take a drone with them, or be based in a neighboring country and fly into that airspace, but more that we would find people on the ground that we could provide the technology and training to, which of course brings up other issues in terms of neutrality and what not. If there is a less than one-sided conflict, you could potentially run into the problem of giving one side an advantage and so on. The way we would probably go about it is to actually develop relationships with neutral third parties, whether that would be with local NGOs or what have you that could operate the devices.

We’ve thought of first testing the concept in permissive environments. A non-permissive environment is one in which the host government would be hostile to doing this kind of work. In a more permissive environment, you’re looking at a case where the perpetrators of atrocities we’re trying to prevent are not state-based, and thus you could operate with the permission of the government. For instance, the Eastern Congo would be a good example of a possible test environment, where a lot of the atrocities being committed are committed by non-state actors. In these environments, the concept can be tested without having to answer some of those more difficult legal questions right away.

Development organizations are often criticized for lopsided allocation of resources and inefficiency. How would the use of drones help advance the moral, long-term goals of development organizations?  

As I mentioned, drones would complement our efforts of early warning and information gathering.

Firstly, drones would be a lower cost alternative to satellite imagery. The Satellite Sentinel Project has had a lot of financial support from a variety organizations—Google, some celebrities and so on—so they’ve had a fair bit of money to put into it.

Satellite imagery is still something that, although it is starting to be used by a variety of nonprofits— like the Satellite Sentinel Project, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch—it’s still prohibitively expensive for the vast majority. It costs a lot to get a meaningful amount of imagery. For the price of one or two satellite images you could buy or lease or build a pretty decent drone, which means you can also have greater coverage because you can have multiple devices flying instead of a single satellite device in an area. Similarly, it also means that they’re semi-disposable. So if one gets shot down or something like that, it’s not the end of the road. You can just send more, theoretically, depending on resources, of course. There is an entire community of people around the world who do this as a hobby and build impressive devices for hundreds or thousands of dollars, so if we can tap into that kind of community, there is a lot we can do with the technology without having to spend a lot money. You don’t find amateur satellite enthusiasts, but you do find thousands of people building drones for fun and doing pretty interesting with them for pretty low prices.  

flickr-3195196177-originalDrones would obviously not be able to gather the same amount of information as satellites. But other advantages are that it’s more responsive, it doesn’t take potentially hours to get into position to start gathering data, and it can change course more easily. Satellites are fixed in a certain orbit around the earth. It takes time for them to get to a particular spot. It’s a very deliberate process to select and request a particular spot that needs to be imaged, and then you have to wait for the satellite to get into place, for the images to be processed and oftentimes the end product is something that to the average person would not really be intelligible. It takes a certain sort of expertise to be able to analyze those images and make sense of them.

With drones, we start to overcome those obstacles. It’s as quick as somebody just deciding to deploy the drone and using it for whatever its intended purposes. That right there, that sort of shift from the strategic to the tactical level of control is a big advantage, especially if we’re talking about empowering local communities. That also means that it’s more reactive, so, as the situation changes, it could be corrected or repurposed.

Drones would also bring us to the next level in terms of gathering real-time data that we can’t do necessarily right now by relying on human reporting and open-source media available online. Our biggest concern at the moment is to deal with the long distance relationship we have with most of the situations that we’re monitoring by virtue of the fact that we’re being based here in Toronto, and we’re concerned with things happening in Colombia, Sri Lanka or Kenya. We have to rely heavily on communicating with people on the ground, whether via SMS or e-mail, or we have to rely on what we glean from blogs, local NGOs, social media and so on. And in a lot of cases, the technological infrastructure isn’t there. People don’t have Internet access everywhere in the world yet, people don’t have mobile phone everywhere in the world, and there are also a lot of places where people are basically cut off, not necessarily because of physical remoteness but because the way a particular regime has treated an area. However, if we had something like a drone, we could use it to penetrate an area, gather information in a finite amount of time and then get out, or it could be used to set up a semi-permanent communication link with an area and so on.

Drones would not only build capabilities for the Sentinel Project. They would also build capabilities for people on the ground by augmenting local level early warning capacities, which would ultimately help communities at risk more effectively move out of harm’s way and react to violence.

Photos from Fotopedia.