Why I still talk about ‘drones’

A drone being tested to monitor crop production and vegetation, to support subsistence farmers
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Scheibenreif

By Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF Malawi

Friends recently asked me if reports in the media about the Israeli Defense Forces’ use of drones to drop tear gas on protesters along the Gaza border affects the way I envisage the future use of drones. This reminds me of the frequent discussions I’ve had about the use of the term “drone”.

As many of you know, UNICEF is running a “humanitarian drone testing corridor” in collaboration with the Government of Malawi. Visiting journalists often ask me why we decide to use the label “drone” — which has a military connotation — instead of an “untainted” technical term like remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

One reason is simply good communication. The general public knows what a drone is and immediately grasps meaning of the term humanitarian drone, in a way that they would not if we said humanitarian RPAS or humanitarian UAV.

But there is a wider issue as well. I normally ask them who should be allowed to define this term and have the prerogative to shape its usage in public discourse. In German language this is called “Deutungshoheit” which refers to the ability to define a term’s meaning in society and could be loosely translated into the “prerogative on interpretation”.

While I think that a drone is merely a tool, it obviously has the incredible potential to revolutionize the ways we are working in a development or post-emergency setting. For example, they can provide transport, connectivity or situational awareness.

Eventually, drones will be fully integrated into the work of organisations like UNICEF, providing essential services to help save lives. Already today, there is a whole community working on these applications and shaping general public awareness — just check out #drones4good on Twitter to learn more!

The picture above shows Assistant Professor Yuki Okamoto, from Kyoto University, during a research project in Malawi. This used the drone testing corridor to investigate the applicability of consumer drones to monitor crop production and vegetation, in order to support subsistence farmers.

The evolution of drones from a military device into a tool to provide humanitarian and development support has been rapidly accelerating over the last years. The subsequent re-branding of the term thus reflects a change in the allocation of resources.

Until recently, it was difficult for start-up companies or universities to test their hardware and services for humanitarian or development use under beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) conditions. This was changed by the opening of the Malawi drone testing corridor.

For me the case is clear: the only viable solution to move forward is to continue testing and gaining momentum with life saving drone applications. This is why I advocate to keep on using the term drone but to improve its public perception by showing how drones can help bringing positive change!

In this regard, I am also more than happy to inform you that Malawi’s humanitarian drone testing corridor will be open for a second year. To learn more about it, please visit: http://unicefstories.org/drones/malawi/

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