Do-Gooder Drones

TORONTO – A foreign policy revolution is coming, to be led not by a charismatic leader, but by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones. The military use of drones, particularly by the United States to kill suspected enemy combatants in Pakistan, has fueled considerable debate. But the discussion misses a crucial point: drones can be used for good.

More than weapons of warfare, drones have the potential to serve humanitarian causes. Through surveillance and data collection, unarmed drones could benefit human-rights campaigns, development assistance programs, and scientific research.

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Technology has far surpassed the verification and reporting methods employed by humanitarian organizations. Micro-drones could assist in aid deployments by locating remote villages or ensuring that money and resources reach their destinations, while allowing donors to watch the campaigns unfold in real time. This would not only improve monitoring and reporting, but would also mollify critics who question whether aid actually reaches the people for whom it is intended.

Moreover, during natural disasters, helicopters are typically used to scan ravaged areas in search of survivors. A medium-size drone guided by advanced GPS technology could do the same job far more accurately and, as a result, save more lives.

Drones also could strengthen human-rights campaigns abroad. Governments, monitoring agencies, or the United Nations could use unarmed drones to assess accurately whether and how an authoritarian regime is attempting to silence its people. Indeed, while despots can shut down social networks or muzzle the press, unarmed drones would allow resistance groups and human-rights organizations to capture brutality on video, organize effective opposition, protect citizens, and expose the regime’s true face.

From Syria to Sudan, drones could be used to save lives, rather than to end them. Following the recent massacre in Houla, Syria, in which more than 100 civilians were killed, UN observers took days to reach the village. Less than two weeks later, another mass killing took place, but the UN did not reach the town until after the bodies had been cleared. Had the team been equipped with drone technology, they could have documented the bloodshed – and publicly streamed the footage in real time for Russian and Chinese leaders to see at the UN Security Council.

To be sure, UAVs are not perfect, and currently they are used almost exclusively for military purposes. The US runs three drone programs – one officially recognized, and the others off the radar – and uses drones to monitor its borders. The US military operates 66 bases for UAVs on American soil, with 22 more planned across the country and more being built in Africa and off the coast of Australia.

But drones are beginning to be transformed into civilian tools. Individuals and NGOs can purchase drones for less than $1,000, and the Federal Aviation Administration has relaxed restrictions on civilian drone use in the US. Some scientists already use drones to monitor their experiments; the film industry employs drone-like technology for use as platforms; and farmers have begun to turn to drones for crop management.

Available in all sizes, and able to accumulate data over vast distances, drones can do for information-gathering what Twitter has done for reporting: cheaply, efficiently, and prodigiously gather video of events as they unfold. Unlike Twitter, however, drones cannot be shut down.

Today, governments and large corporations have the resources and capabilities to eclipse humanitarian efforts. But drones could tip this balance of power in favor of humanitarian causes, whether they are used to monitor wildlife, verify aid deployments, coordinate protests, or expose the lies of tyrants.

Of course, even peaceful drones can be dangerous. Indeed, a world in which a small robot can monitor one’s every move is an Orwellian nightmare. And micro-robots easily could violate state sovereignty by flying into a country’s air space.

Given the risks, the widespread proliferation of drones will demand strict regulation of ownership and usage to ensure that terrorist groups or other hostile actors do not obtain this technology – just as guns are regulated in most jurisdictions and stringent checks are placed on nuclear and chemical weapons. An international treaty regarding how to regulate drone use also is a possibility, though a distant one.

Like nuclear weapons, drones are here to stay. Both have revolutionized warfare. Unlike nuclear weapons, however, drones can – and should – be used to save lives and promote peace.