Drones: a technological development whose connotation has evolved from mysterious military weapon to an everyday recreational consumer good with a growing array of practical applications. Improved and cost-effective designs have shrunk the price for basic models to around $500. This has led to a rapid proliferation of the devices – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
While U.S. businesses (including Amazon, which expressed interest in developing a drone delivery service) have had their drone plans shelved by a federal government uncertain of how to regulate commercial usage, nonprofits and humanitarians around the world have been quick to adapt the remote-flying devices for their work.
PETA uses drones to monitor illegal hunting practices in Upstate New York. The organization has even branded drones with their logo, selling them to activists. A Belgian engineering graduate named Alex Momont designed an “ambulance drone,” which will enable medical professionals to deliver defibrillators to cardiac arrest victims in remote or obstructed areas. Doctors Without Borders enlisted the help Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based drone company, to figure out how to transport tuberculosis samples from remote communities to urban testing centers.
This recent burst of innovation and integration of drone technology appears to be the start of a trend. Staff at the nonprofit Global Medic predict a number of other applications for disaster relief, including search and rescue operations, mapping damaged infrastructure, and tracking population movements. Environmental groups are also exploring the utility of UAVs; a group called ConservationDrones is raising money to develop a fleet to monitor endangered animals, such as the elusive snow leopard.
Right now, nonprofits that possess modest numbers of drones face minimal regulation. The nonprofit Texas Equusearch brought a case against an FAA employee who ordered the organization to cease its drone operations. After review, a panel of judges from the Federal Appeals Court threw out the case stating that there is no legal justification or precedent that prevents the nonprofit from using drones.
That might soon change, however, as the technology faces tougher scrutiny in the wake of high-profile incidents underscoring the danger and potential criminal applications of drone technology.
On Monday, January 26, a UAV crashed on the Whitehouse lawn. A drunk employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was operating the drone from a nearby apartment building and steered the device over the Whitehouse fence. While this incident did not pose a direct threat to the president or his family, it occurred just days after the Department of Homeland Security held a conference that demonstrated how easily a terrorist could use UAVs to deliver explosives.
A number of other cases have officials mulling over security risks. In France, drones have been seen flying above nuclear reactors. In South Carolina, a drone carrying phones, drugs, and tobacco for inmates crashed at a correctional facility.
Some proposed regulations would mandate safety protocols programmed into drone firmware, which would render drones non-operational or send them back in the direction of their users the moment they entered restricted airspace. The Chinese company DJI – designer and producer of the model used in the Whitehouse incident (pictured above) – announced that it will program such firmware, and that they will develop further programming to prevent drones from flying over national boarders.
This self-regulation, however, will not prevent the inevitable. Specialists agree that these safety configurations are easily hacked, and that with individuals would be capable of circumventing them with minimal know-how. Other controls will be needed to safeguard against misuse.
To what degree drone usage will be regulated remains unclear. One proposal would require users to hold flying licenses, a measure that the Washington Post describes as “overkill.”
Nonprofits should continue integrating technological innovations like drones into their operations. While organizations should also anticipate the conversation around regulation to gain momentum this year, that should not prevent them from demonstrating how technology – when responsibly used – can make profound, positive impacts on the world.