The dire humanitarian consequences of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in conflict have become all too familiar. In contrast, there has been much less public discussion about the potential humanitarian uses of drones. So-called ‘disaster drones’ offer humanitarian agencies a range of possibilities in relation to crisis mapping, search and rescue and (some way off in the future) cargo transport and relief drops.
How can the humanitarian community benefit from the technological advances that UAVs and other unmanned or automated platforms offer without giving further legitimacy to a UAV industry looking for civilian applications for drones developed for military purposes? Are there particular ethical, legal and financial implications with respect to procuring disaster drones? This article gives an overview of current and foreseeable uses of disaster drones and ‘(ro)bots without borders’, highlighting the need for a more thorough understanding of the commercial logic underpinning the transfer of technology from the military to the civilian and humanitarian fields, and the systematic attempts being made by the UAV industry to rebrand itself as a humanitarian actor. It also shares insights from a recent workshop on the potential role of drones in Red Cross search and rescue operations, and concludes by linking the issue of the disaster drone to broader questions regarding humanitarian technology.