University of Zurich: From “Good” to “Ethical” Drones


The United Nations anticipates an ever-growing number of populations in need of humanitarian assistance globally due to pandemics, natural disasters, armed conflicts, war and conflicts. To respond to the needs of affected communities around the world, international organizations are increasingly adopting new and emerging technologies. These solutions include geographic information systems, artificial intelligence, biometrics, blockchains and unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly referred to as drones). Drones represent the first wave of robotic technology applied in the humanitarian sector, demonstrating remarkable capacities to speed up humanitarian response and optimize relief operations.

Good drones
Today, there is an increasing trend of drone use in humanitarian action for search and rescue missions, for mapping devastated lands and ruined roads, and for supply deliveries in emergency situations and remote areas. Examples of successful drone use include the 2010 Haiti earthquake (damage inspection), the 2012 Hurricane Sandy in the USA (epidemic prevention), the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (rescue logistics), the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa (medical supply delivery), the 2015 Nepal earthquake (disaster mapping), and the 2020 Covid pandemic (vaccine delivery). Contrary to the newsworthy reputation of military use, drones are now perceived as life-saving technology with tremendous potential to harness the power of innovation in assisting humanitarian work.

Humanitarian drones
Along with enthusiasm comes uncertainty. Although new technologies provide a unique solution to the humanitarian sector, technological innovation intersects with moral values, norms, beliefs and commitments. In the humanitarian context, the use of novel technology may challenge the principle of “do no harm”, may raise questions related to sovereignty, and may negatively affect at-risk populations. On a broader level, innovation may disrupt relationships between stakeholders, may widen inequality between those with access and those without, and may cause unintended harmful consequences that disproportionately affect the vulnerable.

It is worth noting that the humanitarian use of drones differs considerably from their civil or commercial use in precision agriculture, industrial inspection, recreational photography or filmmaking for example. Challenges such as the potential malicious use of technology, protection of privacy of the vulnerable, and safety and security of sensitive data, touch on the appropriateness of using drones in humanitarian action.

Additionally, the concept of humanitarian innovation is relatively new, and issues associated with the cost-effectiveness and risk-benefit ratio still need to be clarified. For example, compared with satellite images, drones provide high-resolution aerial images, and increased acuity heightens concerns over

privacy. An ethical issue emerges as humanitarian data may be vulnerable to theft or subject to surveillance, which potentially invokes risks to individuals and undermines humanitarian neutrality. This questions the legitimacy of the popular (mis)belief that social problems can be resolved with technological solutions. Careful reflection on the balance between technological solutions and their legal and ethical implications is therefore required.

Ethical drones
Digital technologies are often seen as powerful tools for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. While technologies may have the potential to provide opportunities to the humanitarian sector to deliver effective relief measures, it is vital to safeguard humanitarian principles, understand the dynamics and complexity of the technologically mediated human world, and ensure responsible deployment of technologies in humanitarian action. To help shed light on the nature, type and scope of ethical challenges that humanitarian organizations may confront when embarking upon innovation programs, researchers from the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) of the University of Zurich have been working with partners to bridge the gap between “good” drones and “ethical” drones.

As one of the key outputs of a research conducted during 2018-2021, the Framework for the Ethics Assessment of Humanitarian Drones (FEAHD) was developed, alongside a set of governance guidance tools. The FEAHD was conceptualized in collaboration with international organizations through an evidence-based and bottom-up approach, involving both domain experts and lay people. As it raised significant interests of the humanitarian community in ethics governance, a DIZH innovation fund was provided in 2022, to further operationalize the FEAHD through an interactive digital tool E-HUD. In this way, DSI researchers make a key contribution in this final stage and support humanitarian organizations in integrating ethical values into innovation practices.

University of Zurich