The Case Against Humanitarian Drones

Nathaniel A. Raymond, Brittany Card, and Ziad Al Achkar on why drones should not be deployed in humanitarian operations

New Risks With No New Advantage

In “The Case for Humanitarian Drones,” former U.S. ambassador on HIV/AIDS and global health Jack C. Chow offers several reasons drones may be valuable in humanitarian operations.  However, the answers to the three questions below must be the basis for determining whether drones are to be deployed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others for humanitarian purposes: 

  1. What new risks does this particular use of drones present to vulnerable populations and humanitarian responders? 

  2. Can these risks be mitigated?

  3. Are these risks worth mitigating? 

This essay contends that the answers to these three questions argue against the deployment of drones in humanitarian operations.  The widespread use of drones by NGOs in most humanitarian response scenarios would present several new, unique risks to vulnerable populations and humanitarian actors alike.  Simultaneously, the use of drones would exacerbate and mutate several of the complex operational challenges routinely faced by the humanitarian sector.

It is also the conclusion of the authors that drones currently offer no significant or unique operational advantages to NGOs in either informing situational awareness or direct delivery of aid supplies to a degree that outweighs these risks.  What’s more, even if drones do offer some yet-undemonstrated new capability to the humanitarian sector, at present, the hardware itself is technically, financially, and logistically unfeasible for NGOs to adopt anytime soon.

Legality, Operationality, and Feasibility

To answer these questions, this essay identifies and examines crosscutting categories of risks the civilian use of drones may inject into humanitarian contexts: 1) the legality of humanitarian drone use, 2) likely operational impacts this use may have on responders and beneficiaries, and 3) whether drones or manned platforms can feasibly fulfill the technical requirements of humanitarian agencies better than current capacities and assets.

Relevant international law governing the delivery of humanitarian aid is the same for unmanned aerial delivery versus manned aerial delivery of people and supplies.  Situations in which NGOs cannot legally use civilian aircraft in a sovereign state’s airspace, whether in a surveillance or delivery posture, are identical to those in which civilian drones would be prohibited.  In other words, any place a country’s government can legally shoot down a plane, it can also legally shoot down a drone.  A drone offers no improved protection to NGOs attempting to legally enter restricted environments.  What’s more, drones can create additional legal risks for humanitarian operations if they are unable to communicate with ground-based air traffic control and nearby aircraft the same way a manned vehicle can.

In terms of accepted humanitarian ethics, the use of drones is drastically more ethically complicated for humanitarians than manned air delivery and surveillance platforms – and these unique ethical complications also do not appear to be accompanied by any clear technical and/or operational advantage.  As Chow acknowledges, drones can further complicate the already difficult challenge of differentiating humanitarian actors from military providers in the eyes of affected populations.  Additionally, drones can create and/or amplify the impression that humanitarian workers are engaged in active intelligence collection through employing a “dual-use” platform.  The best way to avoid this confusion, considering that no critical or unique operational function appears to be gained through drone deployment, is to simply not use them.

Chow’s main argument in favour of the use of drones by humanitarians is to facilitate the airdropping of supplies, which is something humanitarian responders rarely do.  Current humanitarian standards of practice and ethics strive to avoid aerial dispersal operations (i.e. releasing items from an aircraft in flight) at all costs.  That said, if humanitarians must airdrop, drones are not optimally built to deliver some of the core capabilities that matter most to humanitarians during an airdrop, such as cargo capacity, vertical lift, cost, and speed.

The level of drone technology available now for humanitarian operations is prohibitively expensive and flies low, slow, and light.  What humanitarians can currently access in terms of chartered manned platforms is relatively cheap by comparison, can be easily rented for use in complex environments, and does not require the deploying agency to purchase either the vehicle or the costly transmission towers and equipment to communicate with the vehicle.  Also, these vehicles, whether helicopters, Antonov-type heavy-transport planes, or mid-size fixed-wing aircraft, can often fly higher, faster, and heavier (i.e. carry more cargo) than any drone currently available.  

Matching the Tool to the Task

Opportunities may theoretically exist for the use of drones in supplementing cellphone and internet connectivity in disaster-affected yet permissive environments, as well as some forms of surveillance in certain, non-conflict contexts.  However, these scenarios – both in terms of cost and technical capacity – rarely, if ever, require NGOs to deploy drones to accomplish these goals and acquire similar capabilities in a timely and effective way.  This technology should not be used simply because it is available – it should be used only when it is the best tool for the required task.  That “tool to task” match currently does not exist for drones in the humanitarian context. 

1. Legality


Drones do not mitigate any current legal limitations on the activities of humanitarian NGOs or governments, and provide no new, unique legal advantage whatsoever.  The use of drones may actually cause humanitarian aid workers to incur greater legal risk in certain cases.  Whether aid workers are using manned or unmanned aerial platforms, international humanitarian law governing when they can legally operate inside a state is the same.  Additional Protocols I and II of the Geneva Conventions “require the consent of the parties concerned for relief actions to take place,” which means that nations must provide consent for international NGOs to provide humanitarian aid within their territory, regardless of the platform used.

Additionally, “humanitarian relief personnel must respect domestic law on access to territory.” Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines that “sovereignty extends to the air space over the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil.” This definition of sovereignty maintains that a nation has the absolute power to determine, through domestic law, how its territory is accessed by land, sea, or air.  This national legal framework regulates the use of drones and manned aircraft alike in a humanitarian context.

Based on these principles of international law, the nation receiving the aid would have to consent to both the delivery of the aid and its delivery method. In all but one case, no NGO may fly any vehicle without the consent of the nation controlling the airspace it is flying it in.  The only exception to this standard is a UN agency (or NGO operating under the UN umbrella) acting with Chapter VII authorization from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Potential Lawful Targets

The Manual on International Law applicable to Air and Missile Warfare (AMW Manual) outlines additional legal complications that directly relate to the use of drones by civilians. The AMW Manual defines an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as an “unmanned aircraft of any size which does not carry and which cannot control a weapon.” The AMW Manual further states that civilian control of a UAV may constitute taking a direct part in hostilities, which causes the loss of civilian status. Furthermore, the loss of civilian status means that the vehicle can be considered a lawful target.

Humanitarian aid delivery platforms, either drones or manned aircraft, are subject to orders from the nation that controls the airspace. These orders include instructions for landing, inspection, and possible capture. Failure to comply with these orders may render the neutral civilian aircraft a military target. If the NGO co-ordinating the relief does not abide by these orders, then the nation may take further measures to protect its sovereignty and may engage the flying aircraft within its airspace. 

Retrofitting Humanitarian Principles

Given the fact that drones are not traditionally equipped with standard plane-to-plane and air-to-air traffic control radio capacity, drones in their current state would fly incommunicado with all other planes and ground actors, save the vehicle’s operators.  Humanitarian actors would need to retrofit any drones and ground operations capacity that they rent or purchase for unmanned humanitarian operations with communications, telemetry, and other guidance systems standard for manned flight to ensure compliance with international law and basic air safety. In other words, humanitarians would have to make their drones operate exactly like the planes and helicopters they can already access and routinely use to deliver larger cargos, faster and at higher operational tempos.

Cost and technical requirements aside, there is a central humanitarian principle at stake: The compliance of humanitarian responders with international law, national laws, and, most importantly, standards of humanitarian ethics is what makes humanitarians humanitarians, differentiating them from spies, smugglers, and pirates.  This compliance is what grants humanitarians – whether NGO, governmental, or UN personnel – humanitarian status, access, and protection when assisting disaster-affected people. 

Thus, there does not exist an operational moment for professional humanitarians where they would be trying to intentionally violate international law, evade local air traffic control, dodge a national air force, or chance being fired on by air-to-ground defence systems without a UNSC mandate.  In the end, the absence of a legal advantage, as well as the corresponding legal disadvantages for the use of drones, makes the operational, technical, and logistical feasibility of humanitarian drone use deciding factors in weighing their potential deployment.        

2. Operationality


A key piece of Chow’s argument in favour of employing drones in humanitarian operations is their potential use in physically airdropping supplies from a moving vehicle without landing.  For humanitarians, the decision to airdrop supplies is an act of absolute last resort.  The instances when and where the methodology of airdropping is employed are the rarest and most extreme scenarios humanitarian responders ever face, and the operational community attempts to avoid choosing this option at all costs.  Humanitarian responders are rightfully wary of employing airdrops because of past, tragic experiences using airdrops without the proper operational conditions in place on the ground. 

The U.S. Air Force’s eventual discontinuation of airdrops of individual meals ready to eat (MREs) over Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 is now considered a textbook example of why to avoid the airdrop of aid supplies during armed conflicts.  The packaging of the MREs had to be changed from yellow to salmon in the middle of the operation because the colour and shape of the parcels were identical to those of unexploded U.S. cluster munitions. The presence of the aid packages in the same locations the cluster bombs were being dropped put children and others at risk for confusing the airdropped MREs with undetonated ordnance.  In another example from that operation, a U.S. government airdrop of aid resulted in bundled supplies landing on a house, killing one Afghan woman and critically injuring a child. In 2009, another death occurred in Afghanistan due to a box carrying military propaganda leaflets failing to open mid-air, hitting and killing a young girl.

That said, in some rare and extreme cases, airdrops are proactively used as a delivery methodology.  However, these operations almost always comport with the following parameters: 1) the consent of the nation where the aid is being airdropped has been received, 2) bulk deliveries of food stuffs and other goods are released by parachute, rather than dispersed in small payloads or parcels, 3) the risk of civilians being killed or wounded by falling supplies is intentionally mitigated, and 4) pre-positioned staff and local partners are trained and equipped to recover the packages and deliver them through existing ground-transport pipelines. 

Airdrops co-ordinated by the World Food Programme were used in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Haiti. In most of these cases, the airdrops were in support of highly trained, pre-positioned, national staff co-ordinating sustained ground-delivery efforts over a period of months and/or years.  These airdrops were authorized and succeeded precisely because they supplemented and multiplied the impact of staff on the ground who were implementing long-term, multi-pronged feeding strategies, as opposed to airdropping supplies because these resources were absent.  The limited operational versatility of drones is the opposite of what these rugged, robust, and long-term operations require.   


Chow states that drones may be “psychological morale-boosters, giving hope that help is on the way.”  While this is a well-meaning suggestion, the “dual-use” nature of drones makes it highly difficult to ensure that the affected populations who see drones overhead will know what they are, who they belong to, and what their intent and broader meaning might be. And they would be right to act skeptically.  Although the drone may be intended to communicate that assistance is coming, the population on the ground will have little to no way of safely concluding whether the unmanned vehicle is delivering foodstuffs or hellfire missiles, especially while moving at more than 100 miles an hour several thousand feet overhead. 

Ironically, the environments where the most plausible humanitarian argument could be made for an expendable unmanned aerial platform are exactly the regions where the U.S. military and intelligence services have chosen to use an expendable unmanned aerial platform.  Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all environments where drones have conducted high-tempo air strike operations on alleged militant targets, killing and injuring non-combatants as a by-product of these sorties.  It would be unethical for humanitarians to use a drone in those environments because of the panic such an operation could likely cause ­– a clear violation of accepted standards of humanitarian ethics.

3. Feasibility


A comparison of the technical capabilities of a drone to those of manned aircraft traditionally deployed in humanitarian operations clearly demonstrates that drones do not even meet, let alone exceed, current operational capabilities and requirements. First, an aircraft’s airspeed determines how quickly humanitarian aid can be delivered into a disaster zone. Both helicopter and fixed-wing drones fly significantly slower compared to all manned vehicles regularly used by humanitarians. The cruise speed of an MQ-1 Predator drone is only 84 miles per hour, with a maximum speed of 135 miles per hour, while the speed of an Antonov An-26 transport plane, a common humanitarian delivery platform, ranges from 273 to 336 miles per hour, depending on altitude.[13] Two other, smaller supply and staff transport aircraft flown by Air Serv International, a humanitarian airlift organization, are the DeHavilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otter and Cessna C208 Caravan, which have cruising speeds of 191 miles per hour and 212 miles per hour, respectively. These two manned platforms fly at least two times faster than the cruising speed of a Predator. 


Second, the cost of a drone prohibits this delivery platform from being purchased by a humanitarian organization. Rental rates do not appear to be publicly available.  A Predator costs approximately $5 million12, which does not include costs associated with fuel, ground relay stations (which manned aircraft do not require), equipment, repairs, or the human-resources costs of training and employing drone-specific flight teams. Instead of purchasing an expensive aircraft and regionally specific ground relay stations, NGOs can charter the appropriate aircraft for their mission at a much more affordable rate almost anywhere in the world without absorbing ancillary maintenance and operational costs. Companies (like Air Serv International) that solely exist to provide chartered aircraft to humanitarian organizations are already in operation. Additionally, the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) is currently the world’s leading humanitarian air fleet. UNHAS has direct access to 54 chartered aircraft that are ready for deployment around the world within 48 hours of a deployment request from a UN-affiliated agency.

Payload Capacity

Most importantly, humanitarian aircraft are deployed in time-sensitive operations providing mission-critical resources to a vulnerable population on the ground. The organization must deliver the most resources that it can per flight.  The difference in payload between the MQ-1B Predator drone and the Antonov An-26 is staggering.  The An-26 is capable of transporting as much as 27 times the payload of the MQ-1B.  The Predator has a maximum payload of 450 pounds12, while the An-26’s maximum payload reaches up to 12,125 pounds.13 When the goal is bulk, speed, range of operations, and ease of deployment, there is no technical advantage whatsoever to deploying a drone.

Communications and Control Systems

Proponents of drones laud these unmanned aerial systems for their apparent technical sophistication, combining powerful communication, telemetry, and surveillance capabilities, which allow for the simple conduction of complex tasks. However, this supposedly sophisticated technology is surprisingly fragile, and is vulnerable to a host of threats that more robust, manned platforms are not vulnerable to. For example, more than half of the drones used by the United States military have no encryption for their classified video streams. As a result, adversarial actors are able to access these classified intelligence streams in some cases. In 2008, it was discovered that the laptop of a Shiite militant contained U.S. military drone video feeds. The videos were obtained using a $26 software created to download movies and songs from the internet. Although the 2008 incident pushed this vulnerability into the spotlight, this hole in the operational security between the drone and ground control has been known about, and sometimes exploited, since the Bosnia campaign.

Drones are susceptible to other unmanned platform-specific dangers. They are vulnerable to air-defence systems, manned fighter aircraft, small-arms fire, in some cases, and signal jamming. Unmanned aerial systems rely on a continuous signal from ground operators to keep them flying. Signal jamming or other disruptive technology can interrupt the drone’s continuity of operations, leaving the drone effectively deaf, dumb, and blind.

In this state, drones endanger civilian populations on the ground by flying haphazardly until they crash or run out of fuel, making them an actual threat to the human security situation they were deployed to improve.  In certain instances, drones can get easily lost or confused when their onboard GPS is accidentally or intentionally disrupted.8

Vulnerability to Small-Arms Fire

Tribal militia in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan claimed to have shot down a U.S. drone in 2008, though the report is unconfirmed.  However, one does not need to look outside the United States for confirmed evidence of the vulnerability of drones to small-arms fire.  In February 2012, a Mikrokopter drone operated by an animal-rights group was flown over Broxton Bridge Plantation, a hunting lodge in South Carolina.  The drone’s mission was to conduct surveillance on a pigeon shoot about to take place below. Hunters at the lodge shot the drone with small-calibre rifles, sending the drone crashing into Highway 601, an active thoroughfare.  As of fall 2012, hunters have shot down four of this particular animal-rights group’s drones.

Crash Rate

Additionally, chronic technical failures cause drones to crash exceedingly more often than manned platforms. As of 2009, more than a third of the Predator drones deployed by the U.S. government in both Afghanistan and Iraq theatres of operations had crashed. Technical failures, including pilots accidentally hitting the engine shut off button while trying to press the missile trigger, are listed as contributing factors to the Predator’s high crash rate.


Drones, it should be concluded, create new risks for humanitarians and the populations they serve.  They also make some pre-existing risks more complicated to mitigate and/or fix.  It is not readily apparent what, if any, operational advantages or capabilities they bring to the work humanitarians regularly do.  These vehicles would cost donation-dependent agencies a large percentage of their limited transportation and logistics budgets to deploy, service, and communicate with. 

There may come a time when the law, the cost, the ease of use, and the technical capabilities of drones become a tight fit with humanitarian practices, ethics, and objectives.  That day may be tomorrow, but it is certainly not today. 

The potential use of drones, on paper, is an alluring – even thrilling – proposition.   Humanitarians often face insurmountable barriers to humanitarian access caused by the actions of state and non-state actors, disrupted and damaged transportation infrastructure in disaster-affected areas, and the high costs often incurred by air and ground shipment of supplies.  That said, humanitarians and disaster-affected people interact on the ground, not in the air. It is the realities of what happens there – and nowhere else – that must inform and shape decisions to deploy unmanned vehicles during humanitarian emergencies.

Also in the series


The Case for Humanitarian Drones

Jack C. Chow on how drones can dramatically change aid – if only we can overcome the stigma associated with them.

Drones for Human Rights

Christopher Tuckwood on why UAVs should be added to the human rights tool box.

Drones in the Field

From kamikaze killers to stealth stalkers, OpenCanada runs through the ways drones are being used in the field today.

Lethal Drones

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko on how UAVs are a different kind of weapon, and one that is quickly proliferating.

Why Drones Win

Amitai Etzioni on why, in terms of morality and efficiency, drones win hands down.

Drone Proliferation

Denis Stairs on why the proliferation of military drones could be both a stabilizing and destabilizing force.

The Slow Death of the ‘Non-Combatant’

Jennifer Welsh on how targeting processes for drone strikes challenges how we traditionally distinguish non-combatants in war.

Where Drones Fit in Fields of Violence

There are serious concerns to navigate when it comes to the political geography of remote warfare.

Gregory Johnsen on Yemen, the U.S., and Drones

OpenCanada's interview with the author of The Last Refuge.

The Robotics Revolution

Brookings senior fellow Peter W. Singer on the broader implications of the use of drones for surveillance and war.

Drones For Good

Matthew Schroyer on why so many people get drones wrong – they're not all heartless, pilotless killing machines.

Letting Drones Reach their Potential

Ryan Calo on why the potential uses of drones for good are endless and should be protected from citizen backlash.

Drone Knowns and Unknowns

Joshua Foust on why the discussion around drone strikes is muddled and vague at best.

Are Drones Right for Canada?

Major-General Fraser Holman (Retired) on how Canada might best make use of UAV technology.

The View From the Ground

Renee Filiatrault on what it means to have an eye in the sky for the boots on the ground.