Author: Warner Anderson MD FACP, Colonel, US Army (Retired)
(Associate Dean at Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center)

This article addresses humanitarian uses; a future article will discuss medical and MEDEVAC uses.

The 13 February 2017 edition of SOFX ran an interesting article about the potential of drones in humanitarian assistance, particularly in crises. However, that article concentrated on the trendy hobbyist quadcopters and missed the needs for a more robust airframe.

The “fun factor” of technology hobbies should not guide the direction of drone development in humanitarian assistance.  These drones are the domain of enthusiasts and innovators, but the platform is lacking in many respects.

Drones have, indeed, been successfully used for missions as diverse as delivering critical medications for that difficult logistical last mile. Clinical laboratory specimens have been transported over short distances of difficult terrain. In fact, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has used drones to drop grenades on unsuspecting Peshmerga, killing two. Innovation continues on many fronts.

But in developing new technologies for humanitarian assistance, should we pin our research and development resources on this particular vehicle?

The humanitarian community, including non-government organizations (NGOs), Department of Defense, or other agencies, should consider fixed-wing vehicles with higher payloads, longer range, greater loiter time on target, more robust control systems, and higher operational ceiling. Although there is greater expense in developing and testing new platforms for humanitarian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), there will be high payoffs in durability, life cycle, and versatility.

Consider a real-world request for UAV support in a humanitarian crisis: The 2008 Haiti earthquake. A call went out from NGOs to DOD for UAV support to determine the extent and magnitude of damage, especially in regions that were inaccessible by road. No Predators were re-tasked from the Middle East or South Asia. However, since 2015 the International Organization for Migration has used small fixed wing and rotor drones extensively to monitor camps and movement of internally displaced persons.

But consider the appropriateness of an instrumented motorized glider for this kind of extreme disaster. Combine commercial, off-the-shelf technology (COTS) with remote or GPS guidance, and responders and planners would have invaluable real-time day, night, or inclement weather information; as well as a potential to broadcast public affairs radio messages, drop critical humanitarian supplies, or provide an area Internet link.

On the other hand, given a need to deliver larger quantities of humanitarian goods, and perhaps protect itself or the recipients from attack by armed groups such as gangs or militias, an adapted hobby platform may have unique potential for medium, if not heavy, lift. Consider a World War Two bomber model for inspiration, with a “bomb bay” that would protect humanitarian supplies from the elements while reducing drag and increasing range, and providing precision parachute cargo delivery. For protection from ground threats, it could carry protective equipment, including non-lethal measures and smoke.

Certainly, quadcopters are serving as carriers for the difficult logistical “last mile,” but if we are looking for a platform that can do work, gather information, and evade armed groups, we might do well to design purpose-built UAVs, and in some cases adapt COTS technology to innovative solutions for wicked humanitarian problems.

One potential use for quadcopters that deserves some research and development attention is a vehicle equipped with biological sensors, beacon locators, and even a small amount of medical equipment, with a video communications link to a medical facility. In remote, hostile, and austere conditions, such a UAV could assist in rescue, including locating casualties with specialized sensors, and then direct rescuers or heavier-lift platforms and crews to the site.

Importantly, we should develop technology to inform decision-makers whether the casualty is indeed viable, to take some of the ambiguity out of the risk matrix for combat or extreme weather rescue.

About The Author

Warner Anderson MD FACP, Colonel, US Army (Retired): Dr. Warner Anderson is a former Special Forces medic, group surgeon, and associate dean at the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center. He is a specialist in internal medicine, emergency medicine, and global health. He has been an emergency department director, an emergency medical services medical director, and director of the International Health Division at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. A combat veteran with two deployments to Iraq, he holds three Bronze Star Medals with one Valor Device, and a Purple Heart Medal. Dr. Anderson is currently medical director of JIC Global LLC. His email is [email protected]
dical and MEDEVAC uses.