Week 9 – Drone Technology

How can you connect digital media, digital cities and specifically drone technology to development and aid?

This is how: the case study in Rwanda where unmanned aerial vehicles, infamously known as killing drones, are being used to transport medical equipment and essentials within a country lacking the infrastructure assets and systems needed to ensure proper healthcare. This seems to address Ole B. Jensen’s question on whether or not the emergence of drone technologies “will also hold empowering potential for institutions other than states, government bodies, commercial enterprises and organised crime.” (Jensen 2016, page 67)

The potential is enormous, as drones can support many other needs as evidenced in the pilots taking place in Malawi. According to UNICEF, the emergence of the first humanitarian drone test corridor will allow organizations and individuals the chance to explore the possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles in the fields of development and aid. The project explores Jensen’s “six dimensions of surveillance” (Jensen 2016, page 71) through the use of drones for capturing aerial imagery, but goes beyond this as it focuses on the transport and delivery of medical supplies, vaccines and laboratory samples.

As usual, with every innovation and the excitement that it brings, there are risks and challenges to look into, not only to do with design constraints but with lack of proper regulation. The UNICEF project addresses this by establishing a corridor in consultation with the Malawi Department of Civil Aviation, abiding to their the government’s regulatory framework.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect with regards to the overuse of unmanned vehicles when facing development and humanitarian issues is the fact that we are not addressing the root issues which are inadequate healthcare systems and road infrastructures. The use of drones might very well support the targets of sustainable development goals such as number 3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. But what about number 9, Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation? Aside from the last component of innovation, the use of drones might not doing number SDG 9 any favours. UNICEF would argue that their mandate is to protect children, and that they are doing just that. As long as the outputs and outcomes are clear, the use if innovative technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles has incredible potential in the development and humanitarian fields.


One thought on “Week 9 – Drone Technology

  1. Hi Mercedes,
    I remember the excitement that followed the announcement that UNICEF was carrying out a pilot project in Malawi in March 2016 on using drones to transport dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV. This followed a study which showed that UAVs were a viable addition to existing transport systems, including those used to help with the diagnosis of HIV. The creating of a UAV corridor for humanitarian access is a very welcome move, however in the article it says the corridor will run for at least one year, until June 2018, I am curious to know what will happen after that? You do raise a valid point of whether drone technology may divert attention away from the bigger challenge of infrastructure development in developing countries. The same question would apply to the Rwanda case study where the technology is being developed by Zipline, a Silicon Valley for-profit company.
    What I find very interesting in this use of drones for humanitarian delivery and assistance is that Jensen (2016:68) looks at drones very much from the perspective of the contemporary urban situation as one of increased mediation and that is highly influenced by the digital networked technologies. He talks of urban surveillance and how the advent of drones is expected to have repercussions for urban design, architecture and mobilities design. I would propose another angle looking at drone use in rural or slum like environments and how the uses of drones can be expanded in such settings beyond delivering ‘things’ to influence the design, architecture and mobilities.

    Flood, Z., 2016. From killing machines to agents of hope: the future of drones in Africa. Guardian Online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/africas-drone-rwanda-zipline-kenya-kruger.

    Jensen, O.B., 2016. Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of “smart cities.” Geographica Helvetica, 71(67–75), pp.66–75. Available at: http://www.geogr-helv.net/71/67/2016/.

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