Are drones actually making a difference in humanitarian aid efforts?

Drones are being used more and more to assist in humanitarian efforts, by providing much-needed footage of disaster-affected areas and more. Pulse Technology Solutions recently assisted Peter Busch from NBC2 News with useful drone footage in Puerto Rico.

Drones aren’t just for flashy YouTube videos.

Although most commonly thought of as an indulgent way for filmmakers to get a high angle shot, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are being used in more creative ways around the world to do some good.

Why use drones?

In general, drones are becoming a facet of disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts worldwide, thanks to a few key benefits of their design:

  • As they are unmanned, sending a drone into a dangerous area only risks the equipment itself, and not the pilot. This makes it a much safer alternative to sending in a helicopter.
  • Drones are also less expensive than their conventional counterparts. Depending on its size and capabilities, losing a drone in a storm is only costs at most a few thousand dollars. This is just a fraction of what a lost manned aircraft would set a relief organization back.
  • Depending on their scope and capabilities, drones are much easier to learn to pilot when compared to helicopters and other aircraft. This reduces the need for highly skilled pilots, which are often rarer and more difficult for relief organizations to hire.

Drones help NBC2 News share Puerto Rico’s story

It’s for all these reasons that drones have begun to play a big role in humanitarian efforts, which can often include journalism.

New stories that examine disaster situations, their causes and effects are an important part of informing citizens of the effectivity of national emergency relief. This was the case with Peter Busch and NBC2 News’ special report on Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.


The report, which would go on to win the Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in broadcasting, was produced with assistance from Pulse Technology Solutions. Our team was proud to support Peter Busch’s reporting by providing aerial drone footage of the Puerto Rican areas affected by Hurricane Maria.

In addition to providing aerial assessment footage in post-disaster areas like Puerto Rico, Pulse Technology Solutions also produces aerial videography to provide documentation of construction progress and footage of special events, as well as mapping and survey, structural inspection and precision agriculture services.

How else are drones being used?

Thanks to all the benefits listed above, drones are being rapidly integrated into disaster relief, humanitarian aid, emergency response, and other areas in a number of different ways.

  • Mapping and monitoring. The US Department for International Development has already been using drones to map and monitor rapid-onset emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and avalanches. While the US Department for International Development recognizes that drones won’t completely fill the need for the usual manned vehicles, like 4x4s, helicopters, and planes, they can speed up response time and make enough of a difference to be worth the investment.
  • Delivery of necessary goods. Drones have also been used to deliver vital cargo to remote areas. The best application of this appears to be in delivering medicine and other necessary supplies in high-frequency, low-volume missions to areas, which is known as “last-mile deliveries”.
  • Emergency response. Here in the US, drones have even begun to play a role in urban emergency response, though only in pilot test areas. In one instance, a police drone was used to track an increasingly dangerous case of road rage. The on-going footage provided police that would eventually arrive at the scene with much-needed context.
  • AED delivery. Cities have also begun testing the use of drones to deliver Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) to those in need. The fact is that 85 percent of cardiac arrests occur in the home, where there may not be an AED on hand to help. With each minute that passes during cardiac arrest, the survival rate goes down by up to 10 percent. Drones would allow healthcare responders to send an AED ahead of them, to be used by whoever placed the emergency call.
  • Urban planning. Outside of the emergency response sector, drones have always been employed for urban planning and land management. Drones can gather data on the landscape to develop digital surface and terrain models, which can then be used with CAD software to construct virtual models.

Are there downsides to using drones for response and relief efforts?

While the number of applications of drone technology appears to be limitless, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that they can be improved. Particularly, this is to do with how they are being used.

Making safe and effective use of drones requires a certain level of expertise and the right resources, especially when it comes to air traffic management. It’s these concerns that led to a conference of like-minded drone tech experts to help develop guidelines for use in Massachusetts last year.

“What was astounding for me was that after four or five days of being in the Philippines, I came across nearly as many teams using small drones – that had never happened before in previous disasters,” said Patrick Meier, co-founder and Executive Director of WeRobotics, to

“But I started realizing that none of these teams were even talking to each other, let alone coordinating. They were not sharing data with the international humanitarian community, local communities, government, and NGOs. My excitement quickly translated to a certain level of alarm.”

It’s this “Wild West” reality of drone use that has led a number of major organizations worldwide to start laying down guidelines for their use in humanitarian efforts and provide resources to eliminate risks.

The United Nations has published an official policy brief on the topic of drone use in humanitarian efforts, alongside many UN groups which are investigating the use of drones in disaster response.

USC’s Institute for Global Health has begun offering what is likely the first online course to educate people on the use of drones for health and to share best practices. For example, this would help inform pilots of the implications of flying medicine over national borders, which could break the law, depending on the region.

What’s the future of drone technology?

Like so many emerging technologies, as time goes by, drones will become less expensive, and more user-friendly.

While this will certainly put more drones in the hands of home filmmakers and personal consumers, this will also benefit disaster response and humanitarian aid organizations that need to access better drones for less money.

It’s important to note that drones have been held back by the same barrier that almost every new technology is – the user’s aversion to change. For every user out there willing to see how a drone could augment or revolutionize the way they’ve been doing something, there are plenty who’d rather not bother.

As drones continue to saturate the mainstream population, both in the consumer and professional worlds, that complacency should erode slowly but surely.

In line with their increased availability and popularity, global organizations will refine their guidelines for use, and enhance their effectivity in critical areas, only furthering the benefits when helping those in need.