Ethical Considerations Associated with “Humanitarian Drones”: A Scoping Literature Review

Science and Engineering Ethics 27 (4):1-21 (2021)
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The use of drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UVAs) in humanitarian action has emerged rapidly in the last decade and continues to expand. These so-called ‘humanitarian drones’ represent the first wave of robotics applied in the humanitarian and development contexts, providing critical information through mapping of crisis-affected areas and timely delivery of aid supplies to populations in need. Alongside these emergent uses of drones in the aid sector, debates have arisen about potential risks and challenges, presenting diverse perspectives on the ethical, legal, and social implications of humanitarian drones. Guided by the methodology introduced by Arksey and O’Malley, this scoping review offers an assessment of the ethical considerations discussed in the academic and gray literature based on a screening of 1,188 articles, from which we selected and analyzed 47 articles. In particular, we used a hybrid approach of qualitative content analysis, along with quantitative landscape mapping, to inductively develop a typology of ethical considerations associated with humanitarian drones. The results yielded 11 key areas of concern: (1) minimizing harm, (2) maximizing welfare, (3) substantive justice, (4) procedural justice, (5) respect for individuals, (6) respect for communities, (7) regulatory gaps, (8) regulatory dysfunction, (9) perceptions of humanitarian aid and organizations, (10) relations between humanitarian organizations and industry, and (11) the identity of humanitarian aid providers and organizations. Our findings illuminate topics that have been the focus of extensive attention (such as minimizing risks of harm and protecting privacy), traces the evolution of this discussion over time (i.e., an initial focus on mapping drones and the distinction of humanitarian from military use, toward the ethics of cargo drones carrying healthcare supplies and samples), and points to areas that have received less consideration (e.g., whether sustainability and shared benefits will be compromised if private companies’ interest in humanitarian drones wanes once new markets open up). The review can thus help to situate and guide further analysis of drone use in humanitarian settings.



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The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Humanitarian Drones.John R. Emery - 2016 - Ethics and International Affairs 30 (2):153-165.
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