The number of studies that examine the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in peacebuilding are far and few between. Even less common (and virtually non-existent) are academic studies that explore the role that robots might play 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 purposes. I look forward to expanding on the examples below during my keynote presentation at Build Peace 2015 in Cyprus.
The Sentinel Project recently launched their Human Security UAV program in Kenya’s violence-prone Tana Delta to directly support Una Hakika (“Are You Sure”). 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 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, they can’t be everywhere at the same time. As the Sentinel team mentioned during one of our recent conversations, there are some places that simply can’t be reached by foot reliably. In addition, the UAVs can operate both day and night; 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 main 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 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. After all, 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 the local staff in the region. This explains why I connected them to 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 50km. The novel part of this initiative is that they’re looking to develop a swarming model, which would enable 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 lots of people can get involved and take ownership. Peacebuilding is often about changing the balance of power. UAVs can clearly play an important role in shifting powerbases.
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 from Digital Democracy traveled to Guyana a few months ago to catalyze the project, he didn’t bring a drone; he simply brought a bunch of parts and glue, 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 to be able to repair it themselves, fly it themselves, and process the images to use for their own means.” Oh, and 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.”
Patrick Meier is an internationally recognized thought-leader on humanitarian technology and innovation. His new book “Digital Humanitarians” has already been endorsed by Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, UN, World Bank and the Red Cross. Patrick directs QCRI’s Social Innovation Program where he develops “Next Generation Humanitarian Technologies” in partnership with international humanitarian organizations. Patrick has a PhD from The Fletcher School, Pre-Doc from Stanford and an MA from Columbia. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Times, Wired and Mashable. Patrick’s influential blog iRevolutions has received over 1.5 million hits. He tweets at @patrickmeier.