Peacebuilders in the Sky?

Patrick Meier directs the Qatar Computing Research Institute’s Social Innovation Program where he develops "Next Generation Humanitarian Technologies" in partnership with international humanitarian organizations. His new book "Digital Humanitarians" has already been endorsed by Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, UN, World Bank and the Red Cross. Patrick's influential blog iRevolutions has received over 1.5 million hits. He tweets at @patrickmeier.

The number of studies that examine the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in peacebuilding are few and far between. There are even fewer academic studies that explore the potential roles for robots in peacebuilding. Take drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), for example. While drones are typically considered military weapons, few realize that small, non-lethal drones are also being used for peacebuilding. My keynote presentation at Build Peace 2015 – Peace Through Technology: By Whom, For Whom? will expand on the use of technology for peace explored in this article.

The Sentinel Project recently launched their Human Security UAV program in Kenya’s violence-prone Tana Delta to support another program called Una Hakika (“Are You Sure”). Una Hakika is an information service that serves to “counteract malicious misinformation [disinformation] which has been the trigger for recent outbreaks of violence in the region.” The project is powered by a dedicated, toll-free SMS short code and an engaged, trusted network of volunteer ambassadors. When the team receives a rumor verification request via SMS, they proceed to verify the rumor and report the findings back (via SMS) to the community.


The Sentinel Project demonstration drone prepares to take flight ahead of thunderstorms in Kibusu, Tana River County, Kenya. (Photo Credit: The Sentinel Project)

The Sentinel team recently introduced the use of UAVs to support Una Hakika’s verification efforts and will be expanding the program to include a small fleet of multi-rotor and fixed-wing platforms. While Una Hakika’s verification network includes hundreds of volunteer ambassadors to mitigate the harmful effects of misinformation, they cannot be everywhere at once. Colleagues of the Sentinel team told me recently that there are some places that simply cannot consistently be reached by foot. In addition, the UAVs can operate both day and night but wandering around at night can be dangerous for Una Hakika’s verification ambassadors. The Sentinel team thus plans to add InfraRed thermal imaging capabilities to the UAVs.

The central element of the Sentinel’s UAV program will be to use the small drones (pictured above) to set up perimeter security areas around threatened communities. Furthermore, the program can address other vectors, which have led to recent violence: using the UAVs to help find lost (potentially stolen) cattle, track crop health, and monitor contested land use. The team mentioned that the UAVs could also be used to support search and rescue efforts during periods of drought and floods.

Satellite Sentinel, a partnership between the Enough Project and DigitalGlobe which uses satellite imagery and analysis to generate real-time responses to human rights and human security concerns in South Sudan and Sudan, has also started discussing the use of UAVs for payload transportation. For example, UAVs could deliver medical supplies to remote villages that have been attacked. The World Health Organization (WHO) is already using UAVs for this purpose. With each of these applications, the Sentinel team clearly emphasizes that the primary users and operators of the UAVs must be local staff in the region. In this way, their work is aligned with that of my colleagues at the Syria Airlift Project who are looking to use UAVs to deliver much needed supplies to crisis-affected populations in Syria.

The Syria Airlift Project is building fixed-wing UAVs that can deliver cargo at fairly long ranges by airdropping parachute bundles. These UAVs can currently deliver 1kg bundles at a range of 30km and then return. The team is now designing a plane that can carry 2kg at a 50km range. Most notably, this initiative is also looking to develop a swarming model, enabling local communities to launch large numbers of these planes.

“If one crew could launch a plane every 5 minutes, that would add up to almost 200kg in an eight-hour time period,” they recently wrote in an email exchange. This is where their community approach comes in. Indeed, a swarming model will only work if this becomes a community project where many people can get involved and take ownership of their role in the process. Peacebuilding is often about changing the balance of power and UAVs can play an important role in shifting said powerbases. The 5th issue of Building Peace magazine, #PeachTech, will have an article by Syria Airlift Project, if you want to learn more about their plans and the possibilities their work opens up.


Wapichana indigenous group maneuvering drone (Photo Credit: Digital Democracy)

Meanwhile, in Guyana, an indigenous community has learned to build and operate their own drones to monitor illegal logging and deforestation. When my colleague Gregor MacLennan from Digital Democracy traveled to Guyana a few months ago to catalyze the project, he did not bring a drone; he brought parts and lots of glue. “We didn’t want to just fly into Guyana and fly a drone over the local villages,” writes Gregor. “Our interest was whether this technology could be something that can be used and controlled by the communities themselves, and become a tool of empowerment for helping them have more of a say in their own future. We wanted the Wapichana indigenous group to be able to repair it themselves, fly it themselves, and process the images to use for their own means.” By the way, Gregor had never built a drone before. Building the drone was truly a community effort. “When the motor mount broke, the team scoured the village for different types of plastic, and fashioned a new mount from an old beer crate. The drone was no longer a foreign, mysterious piece of technology, but something they owned, built and therefore understood.”

As the Sentinel Team in Kenya recently noted, “We believe that successful, technology-driven programs must not only act as tools to serve these communities but also allow community members to have direct involvement in their use.” As such, their approach helps to “counteract the paralysis which arises from the unknowns of a new endeavor when studied in a purely academic setting. The Sentinel Project team believes that a cautious but active strategy of real-world deployments will best demonstrate the value of such programs to governments and global citizens.”

 View from a drone over Tana River County, Kenya ( Feature Photo Credit: The Sentinel Project)
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