UAVs: The new carrier pigeons

Posted: November 28, 2011 in New technologies, Uncategorized
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Following the World War One Remembrance Day ceremonies held this month, I reflect on Cher Ami, the life of a war pigeon and the power of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for humanitarian relief efforts in crisis:

Carrier pigeons have in the past served as an invaluable communication tool in conflict. Their built in homing capabilities coupled with their undetectability enabled them to pass information safely, quickly and accurately and without the need for human exposure. Some 100,000 birds were used in WWI to deliver messages from the frontline, with a 95% success rate. These so called war pigeons were not only responsible for passing messages and medication, but also in 1907 German inventor Julius Neubronner, developed Pigeon Photography as a way of taking aerial photographs; whilst the technique was not deployed in WWI it was later used in the 1930s for the gathering of counter intelligence and military missions by the French, Germans and Americans (Pigeon Photography, Wikipedia, 2011).

For those of you not familiar with the remarkable story of Cher Ami the homing pigeon, during the first world war Cher Ami saved the lives of nearly 200 US soldiers trapped in an ambush by German soldiers whilst their ‘own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us’. These words formed the message that was to be attached to this ‘last hope’ pigeon. The pigeon took flight and was quickly gunned down by German bullets, but, to the mighty rapture of the soldiers, the pigeon fought back against all odds flying high above the artillery range with the leg carrying the message dangling by a sinewy thread. In 25 minutes the hero flew the 25 miles, with a bullet in his chest, back to his home, the US base camp, to report the vital information that would change the destiny of these poor ill-fated souls. The firing stopped and the men were rescued.

In a highly anthropomorphic gesture the French government awarded the pigeon “the French ‘Croix de Guerre‘ with Palm for his heroic service the highest honour of bravery”. Whilst he died in 1919 from the injuries incurred from this event, he was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame 12 years later (Andrew on Burdr, 2010). One has to believe that the pigeon, even with all its fame and fortune, would have preferred to have its leg and ultimately his life. Save the pigeons buy a UAV!

Jesting aside, the point of this story is to illustrate the power of unmanned aerial communication and to look at the potential of UAVs as the modern equivalent to carrier pigeons to help look beyond the role of UAVs as defense weapons.

Whilst the majority of UAVs in production will live their lives as deployers of missiles and counter-intelligence gatherers, there is a yet largely untapped market for the production of UAVs in gathering vital humanitarian information during crisis and as transporters of relief cargo within hostile and inaccessible territories.

UAVs can be used for accurate needs assessment in Rapid Onset Emergency caused by natural disaster or conflict. A UAV can travel where traditional walk and drive assessments may not be carried out because of man-made danger or natural hazards. A UAV can transfer aerial images of crisis affected areas in near real time and with the ability to travel in low altitudes unaffected by cloud cover as satellite imagery can be. It can cover a large distance in a comparatively short time period providing comparatively accurate statistics about population data generally and specifically about ‘vulnerable groups,’ for example those living in extremely rural and isolated settings. A UAV can also help to gather information about accessibility to affected vulnerable populations and provide imagery of the destruction/obstruction of homes and other buildings offering vital services such as hospitals. UAVs can therefore provide essential mapping, logistics and situational awareness functions that are required for coordination of humanitarian efforts in crisis (Tatham, 2009).

An additional use of UAVs in crisis is to transport relief cargo where it might otherwise be difficult to travel for example in the thick of conflict. Unknown Aerospace, developed the Cygnet as a cargo and logistics UAV system ‘designed to provide lift and reconnaissance capability for military, humanitarian aid cargo capability, and to provide specialist payload transport’ (Jones, 2007). USMC, American Dynamics and MMIST, who developed the Snowgoose, are some of the others working in this development area. Additionally, UAVs are currently being developed to enable search and rescue missions.

The use of UAVs in Libya was largely conventional: The US government granted NATO permission to deploy Predator drones to launch Hellfire Antitank Missiles on very specific targets in difficult to manoeuvre, highly vulnerable urban setting. The other documented use of a UAV in the Libya crisis was by rebel forces, when they independently purchased a Canadian Aeryon drone to gather information about the location and military action of pro-Gaddafi forces. Nowhere were UAVs used to gather information for the coordination of humanitarian efforts.

Capacity to travel at various altitudes, distances over time, payloads and cost vary from drone to drone. But for a MALE (medium altitude long endurance) one might expect to pay in the region of $30-40k. On average they can carry a payload of 5kg for approximately 10 hours and travel at around 100km p/hour (Tatham, 2009).  When compared with 75g payload over 160km of the carrier pigeon there’s really no comparison!

There are several downsides to the use of UAVs in crisis: In conflict situations, UAV deployment for humanitarian relief efforts may be construed as intelligence gathering by governments under international scrutiny.  Ensuring that the information being gathered serves only a humanitarian function is a challenge that must be overcome;  UAVs may not be able to help in extremely mountainous regions where no landing platform is possible; understanding how the information obtained through the use of a UAVs can be integrated into traditional approaches to needs assessment in Rapid Onset Emergencies also requires substantially further research; and, there needs to be a development of clear protocols and infrastructure for the use of UAVs in non-segregated airspace. Astraea is consortium currently working to enable UAVs in traditional aircraft space by developing airborne sensory systems and regulations.

Like carrier pigeons, UAVs have the potential to be a life saving tool through crisis situations especially for the most vulnerable, further efforts must be made to test and research the role of UAVs in humanitarian crisis situations.

For further reading on the subject:

New Approaches for Autonomous Logistics Aircraft and Ground Systems, Emma Jones, 2007
UnKnown Aerospace

The Mongoose Multi-Purpose UAV for Relief/Humanitarian Missions, 2006-2008, M3 Aviation

Tatham, P. (2009) ‘An investigation into the suitability of the use of unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAVS) to support the initial needs assessment process in rapid onset humanitarian disasters’, Int. J. Risk Assessment and Management, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp.60–78.

Bots Without Borders – The Draganflyer X6 UAV and Humanitarian Relief Projects


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