Drones for
Humanitarian Aid

Accurate, up-to-date information for better decisions

Whatever your organisation’s field of activity – aid, development, emergency response or disaster preparedness - drone technology can play a valuable role in helping your team work more effectively.

Using a UAV is all about capturing accurate, up-to-date geographic data – the crucial local information you rely on to make your decisions.

Light, safe mapping drones like the senseFly eBee offer an immediate eye-in-the-sky overview – capturing high-resolution aerial images that are easily processed, or “stitched” together into precise 5 cm (1.2 in) per pixel geo-referenced maps (so-called orthophotos or orthomosaics) and, if your work requires them, 3D digital elevation models.

This data, crucially, is available virtually immediately – just plan your flight, fly and process the results, without the inefficiency and hassle of booking and waiting for lower-resolution satellite or manned aircraft data. And due to a drone’s low flight altitudes, you can even capture the shots you need when there are clouds overhead.

Emergency response

When disaster strikes, you need accurate data and you need it quick. By flying over an affected area, drones can provide a virtually instant overview of disaster damage and potential needs – safely, and without interfering with ongoing rescue operations.

Rotary drone systems such as helicopter-like quadcopters can be equipped with still and/or video cameras and are often capable of streaming this data back to a ground station, in real-time. This could, for example, allow your team to reach its target location by seeing beyond that tree blocking your route, or beyond the collapsed hillside.

Once on site, you can then employ a fixed-wing mapping drone to capture aerial data and create an up-to-date orthophoto, allowing you to quickly assess all the damage and decide where to prioritise your resources. What’s more, by distributing copies of your new map more widely – e.g. via an OCHA coordination centre – you can ensure every aid worker, whatever their organisation, is working from the same accurate geo-information.

If you know when disaster will strike – e.g. prior to a hurricane or typhoon hitting landfall – then a quick, timely drone survey can ensure accurate pre-/post-event reporting, recording the destruction caused and/or being used to substantiate future insurance claims.

Want to enlist the help of digital humanitarians around the world? Host your new base map online, link to a tasking platform such as OpenStreetMap (examples), and enable crowd-sourced tracing – using eyes around the world to add more layers of data such as damaged buildings, felled trees, blocked roads etc.


The effective distribution of aid is, clearly, dependent upon accurate geographic information – the more accurate this data, the more efficient the documenting of beneficiaries and the activities that affect them.

In areas where populations are highly fluid, data often needs regularly updating. Displaced persons camps, for example, can benefit from weekly re-mapping in order to monitor their continuing growth or, at other times, their shrinkage. Regular re-mapping can also help document the effects of new infrastructure, such as the real impact on a community of new wells.

In short, with a drone on hand your organisation can create and update its high-resolution base maps exactly when required. These maps are then easily imported into all common GIS software programs in order to layer on census information, trace roads, record the locations of sanitation points etc. - helping you to more efficiently calculate, plan and optimise the distribution of your aid.


When it comes to fast-growing informal communities, development work is often the opposite of traditional city planning – charting how a community has grown, and how it is continuing to evolve, to best meet its current and future needs. This charting can be important, for example, for disaster preparedness and vulnerability analysis.

By utilising the full range of data that a mapping drone can produce – not only orthophoto maps but full 3D digital surface models, point clouds etc. – NGOs and similar organisations can conduct the hydrological studies so crucial to future flood prevention, plan rebuilding and infrastructure projects, map and optimise transit routes, design sewage networks, monitor construction and much more.

Relatively inexpensive drone technology can play a valuable role in local capacity building, empowering communities by giving them immediate and easy access to geo-data – information that was, until recently, only available to communities in developed countries with the funds required to buy in expensive satellite or manned aircraft imagery.

Example drone workflow

1. Preparation

  • Check aviation regulations/organise flight permission
  • Download base maps of area (e.g. Google Satellite, Microsoft Satellite, Open Street Map etc.)
  • Charge drone battery/batteries

2. Arrive on site

  • Engage community
  • Explain tech/benefits/outputs
  • Confirm permission to fly

3. Plan & fly

4. Process in the field

Optional: further post-processing/analysis

  • Drone output files compatible with external software (Esri ArcGIS etc.)
  • Overlay of additional information: borders, contours, road names, displaced person data etc.

Optional: wider usage

  • Share resulting imagery/analysis with local stakeholders (e.g. on-screen or by printing high-resolution maps)
  • Online hosting of maps/full data sets
  • Crowd-sourced analysis

Case studies & reports

Interested in learning how other humanitarian organisations have employed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology? Or would you like to access the latest drone studies & reports? Click below to dig deeper...

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response

This ‘Occasional Policy Paper’ was published in June 2014 by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (‪OCHA‬).

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Mapping the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

How Drone Adventures and Medair used mapping drones to aid reconstruction in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

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The potential of aerial platforms in a 'rapid' emergency response context

This European Commission report finds that compared to satellite imaging sources, unmanned aerial platforms offer "significant benefits due to their higher flexibility in deployment, potentially better timeliness and more advanced technical capabilities".

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Demining feasibility study (GICHD)

How the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) used senseFly drones to analyse the potential benefits and usage of UAVs in mine action.

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Drone applications in emergency response

This presentation by Mapali, IRD & SEAS-OI and Mahidol University explores the potential applications of UAVs in the emergency response field.

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Using mapping drones for disaster prevention & response

Adam Klaptocz of Drone Adventures and senseFly explains how autonomous mapping drones (UAVs) can help NGOs and similar organisations to make better decisions.

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Post-disaster mapping in Haiti

Read how Drone Adventures mapped over 45 sq. km of territory during six days of intense work to provide international organisations with the up-to-date data they required.

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Update: drone data usage in Haiti

A full report explaining how Drone Adventures’ Haiti data has been employed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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Humanitarian in the sky - drones for disaster response

The founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, Patrick Meier, explains how drones are helping communities around the world respond to disasters.

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