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Does drone technology hold a promise for the UN?

Drone technology appears to be taking off at the United Nations, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being used for various purposes, including in humanitarian, development and peacekeeping operations.

Although this technology is not a magic solution, “the promise of drones is really tremendous,” said Christopher Fabian, principal advisor on innovation at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in an interview with UN News.

For UNICEF and other humanitarian and development agencies, he said, drone technology can make a big difference in three ways. First, drones can leapfrog over broken infrastructure in places where developed transportation networks or roads do not exist, carrying low-weight supplies.  Second, UAVs can be used for remote sensing, such as gathering imagery and data, in the wake of natural disasters like mudslides, to locate where the damage is and where the affected peoples are. Third, drones can extend WiFi connectivity, from the sky to the ground, providing refugee camps or schools with access to the Internet.

As big as a Boeing 737 passenger jet and as small as a hummingbird, a huge variety of drones exist. According to research firm Gartner, total drone unit sales climbed to 2.2 million worldwide in 2016, and revenue surged 36 per cent to $4.5 billion.

Although UNICEF’s use of drones has been limited, the agency is exploring ways to scale up the use of UAVs in its operations, Mr. Fabian said.

In late June, Malawi, in partnership with UNICEF, launched Africa’s first air corridor to test the humanitarian use of drones in Kasungu District.

To extend the use of drones, UNICEF and the World Food Programmes (WFP) have formed a working group. In addition, UNICEF, together with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), chairs the UN Innovation Network, an informal forum that meets quarterly to share lessons learned and advance discussions on innovation across agencies.

Drones are also used in other parts of the UN system. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its partners have introduced a new quadcopter drone to visually map gamma radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was damaged by the devastating 2011 tsunami.

Last year, an IAEA-supported drone won fourth place in the 2016 United Arab Emirates Drones for Good Award competition, which received over 1,000 entries from more than 160 countries.

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