Increased interest in the use of unmanned air vehicles by aid agencies and non-government organisations to support relief operations is raising fears that crisis-hit communities will see the aircraft as spies in the sky.

Aid officials and UAV sector specialists caution that the predominantly military usage of the technology so far could lead to suspicions that use of unmanned systems by third parties in a humanitarian relief operation is part of an alternate agenda that could impact national security in the affected country.

According to Tim Willbond, managing partner, Merlin Integrated Solutions, any humanitarian applications of UAV systems will need to be fully transparent at all phases of a deployment.

Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society's aviation support for relief operations conference in London on 25 September, Willbond said: "These things could be seen as spy aircraft, and could be considered by the host government as, even in difficult situations, as being a little bit 'iffy'." He believes UAV operations should be managed by a non-military organisation such as a humanitarian information centre.

National political sensitivities are a factor in most humanitarian operations, according to David Spackman, chief executive of Map Action, a charity specialising in the provision of geographic information and rapid production of up-to-date maps.

"We have got to be very careful. We always say to the military on the ground 'give us one of your experts and he can become part of our team. He can see everything that we are doing and it can be available to him'. I am hoping that because of the access that we get at the government level that eventually we will be able to facilitate the use of UAVs."

Map Action is talking to small-UAV manufacturers about a potential demonstration of how such systems could be used in a relief operation as a tool to support rapid data acquisition.

Source: Flight International