Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer

Review article: Biomedical intelligence

Vol. 149 No. 1314 (2019)

Reflecting upon the humanitarian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones)

  • Evanthia Tatsidou
  • Costas Tsiamis
  • Evika Karamagioli
  • Georgios Boudouris
  • Andreas Pikoulis
  • Eleni Kakalou
  • Emmanuel Pikoulis
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2019;149:w20065


Nine years after the earthquake in Haiti and the appearance of the concept of “humanitarian drones”, it remains a poorly discussed yet highly controversial issue. Emergency mapping and light cargo deliveries to inaccessible areas are only some of the most popular ways in which drones are currently used for post-disaster relief and health crisis management by first responders around the world. On the other hand, every single successful use for drones is always followed by controversy about the problems caused by that very same, initially successful, use. However, examples of good practices will contribute to the investigation, study and analysis of the ways in which new, cutting-edge technologies such as drones can be implemented and adapted to meet the needs and requirements of humanitarian organisations and local communities affected by disasters. The issue is how and under what circumstances drone use can potentially fulfil humanitarian functions, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster, and how this type of technology could be deployed in non-violent, ethically desirable ways as part of the humanitarian response. In conclusion, it is questionable whether the benefits of using drones outnumber the moral obstacles they raise, and whether they will eventually be considered an inseparable part of humanitarian aid as well as a cutting-edge technological toy.


  1. Dyl J. Seismic City: an environmental history of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Washington DC: University of Washington Press; 2017.
  2. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response. OCHA; 2014 [cited 3 January 2017]. Available from:
  3. Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. Drones in Humanitarian Action: A guide to use of airborne systems in humanitarian crises. Geneva: FSD; 2016.
  4. Meier P. How Crisis Mapping Saved Lives in Haiti. National Geographic Society; 2012 [cited 20 December 2016]. Available from:
  5. United Nations Agenda for Humanity. Agenda for Humanity.; 2016 [cited 13 December 2017]. Available from:
  6. Sandvik K, Lohne K. The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept. Millenium. 2014;43(1):145–64. doi:.
  7. Hofman M, Whittall J. Opinion and debate: Drone Aid: A useful tool with a toxic image. Médecins Sans Frontières; 2015 [cited 3 January 2017]. Available from:
  8. Balasingam M. Drones in medicine-The rise of the machines. Int J Clin Pract. 2017;71(9):e12989.
  9. Van Tilburg C. First report of using portable unmanned aircraft systems (drones) for search and rescue. Wilderness Environ Med. 2017;28(2):116–8.
  10. Lekkas E, Voulgaris N, Lozios S. Flash Flood in West Attica (Mandra, Nea Peramos) November 2017. Newsletter of Environmental, Disaster and Crisis Management Strategies No. 5. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; 2017
  11. Karaca Y, Cicek M, Tatli O, Sahin A, Pasli S, Beser MF, et al. The potential use of unmanned aircraft systems (drones) in mountain search and rescue operations. Am J Emerg Med. 2018;36(4):583–8.
  12. Landau E. FINDER Search and Rescue Technology Helped Save Lives in Nepal [Internet]. NASA; 2015 [cited 7 January 2017]. Available from:
  13. Haidari LA, Brown ST, Ferguson M, Bancroft E, Spiker M, Wilcox A, et al. The economic and operational value of using drones to transport vaccines. Vaccine. 2016;34(34):4062–7.
  14. Boutilier JJ, Brooks SC, Janmohamed A, Byers A, Buick JE, Zhan C, et al.; Rescu Epistry Investigators. Optimizing a Drone network to deliver automated external defibrillators. Circulation. 2017;135(25):2454–65.
  15. Lippi G, Mattiuzzi C. Biological samples transportation by drones: ready for prime time? Ann Transl Med. 2016;4(5):92.
  16. Emery J. The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Humanitarian Drones. Ethics Int Aff. 2016;30(2):153–65. doi:.
  17. Rogers A. Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza. J Strateg Secur. 2014;7(4):94–107. doi:.
  18. Pepper T. Drones--ethical considerations and medical implications. J R Nav Med Serv. 2012;98(1):37–40.
  19. Lichtman A, Nair M. Humanitarian uses of drones and satellite imagery analysis: the promises and perils. AMA J Ethics. 2015;17(10):931–7.
  20. United Nations. Global security at stake: Transparency and accountability are crucial in drone warfare 2013 [cited 10 April 2016]. Available from:
  21. Brookman-Byrne M. Drone use “Outside areas of active hostilities”: an examination of the legal paradigms governing US covert remote strikes. Neth Int Law Rev. 2017;64(1):3–41. [doi:.].
  22. World Health Organization. Feasibility study for deploying Drones in Bhutan for delivering medical supplies.[cited 23 December 2017].Available from:
  23. Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority. Ministry of Information and Communications. Advisory Circular 26 April 2016 BCAA 003/6/3/854.
  24. Van Woensel L, Archer G. Ten technologies which could change our lives: Potential impacts and policy implications. Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service; 2015: pp 13–5.
  25. Disanto J. Researcher illustrates impact of drone usage in areas of conflict.; 2016 [cited 3 January 2017]. Available from:
  26. Regulation of Drones. The Law Library of Congress; 2016 [cited 8 January 2017]. Available from:
  27. Rosser JB, Jr, Parker BC, Vignesh V. Medical applications of drones for disaster relief: a review of the literature. Surg Technol Int. 2018;33:17–22.
  28. Rosser JC, Jr, Vignesh V, Terwilliger BA, Parker BC. Surgical and medical applications of drones: a comprehensive review. JSLS. 2018;22(3):e2018.00018.
  29. Bhatt K, Pourmand A, Sikka N. Targeted applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in telemedicine. Telemed J E Health. 2018;24(11):833–8.
  30. Zègre-Hemsey JK, Bogle B, Cunningham CJ, Snyder K, Rosamond W. Delivery of Automated External Defibrillators (AED) by Drones: Implications for Emergency Cardiac Care. Curr Cardiovasc Risk Rep. 2018;12(11):25.
  31. Claesson A, Bäckman A, Ringh M, Svensson L, Nordberg P, Djärv T, et al. Time to delivery of an automated external defibrillator using a drone for simulated out-of- hospital cardiac arrests vs emergency medical services. JAMA. 2017;317(22):2332–4.
  32. Sandvik K, Jacobsen K, McDonald S. Do no harm: A taxonomy of the challenges of humanitarian experimentation. International Review of the Red Cross. 2017;99(904):319–44. doi:.
  33. Robakowska M, Ślęzak D, Tyrańska-Fobke A, Nowak J, Robakowski P, Żuratyński P, et al. Operational and financial considerations of using drones for medical support of mass events in Poland. Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2018;8:1–6.
  34. Migrant Offshore Aid Station. MOAS launch 2016 Mediterranean mission with two ships, two drones patrolling the ‘dead zone’. MOAS; 2016 [cited 29 December 2016]. Available from: