As the contingency contracting and broader U.S. government contracting industry shifts from supporting physical interventions and embraces the "light footprint" approach that international state actors will primarily apply in the years ahead, there will be a definitive shift in the nature of services that the industry will provide in complex and transitional environments.
One of the fastest growing services is, and will continue to be, those offered by unmanned aircraft systems.
As General Stability's Brace Barber wrote in a recent industry publication, "We have the ability to safeguard our people and be more effective in our stability operations through the use of UAVs."
Aerial surveillance and remote sensing are no longer particularly innovative tools of war but they are valuable resources with inventive applications for both the international development and humanitarian relief communities.
Understanding the tools
Similar to the wide market of automobile styles, unmanned systems vary broadly in both form and function. They can be directed autonomously to follow preprogrammed instructions or controlled as a remotely piloted aircraft. UAVs may be small, portable entities that can be launched by hand, medium-sized crafts that are catapult-launched, or vehicles as large as traditional airplanes that require runways for takeoff and landing.
Having the ability to customize mission flight paths and determine precise data-gathering goals on short notice allows UASs to be extremely responsive to user requirements.
The capability allows each system controller or client to specify precisely what sort of data should be collected or what geographic focus should be observed.
Any environment with a humanitarian emergency could benefit from having the capability to promptly collect, analyze and disseminate critical information about the situation and its environs. UAVs can gather this type of information for exploitation in ways that other resources cannot rival.
This is a critical ability to have to best equip first responders with information, as constantly evolving circumstances require the real-time (or the closest thing to it) collection and sharing of facts so that aid and development organizations may best prepare for and respond to events. UAVs were used for this precise reason following the Fukushima disaster of 2011.
From locating and rescuing victims to avoiding placing pilots in harm's way, using autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft to observe events of humanitarian concern is an increasingly attractive facet of the technology.
Many who are wary of having machines "replace" people should instead consider their unique aptitude to supplement traditional collection capabilities. Unlike human-reported information the data collected by these systems is completely impartial. The activities visible in the raw imagery they gather and analytical products resulting from collected data are based on impartial facts that can augment or clarify other sources of information.
In this vein, UAVs can unobtrusively monitor potentially sensitive "he-said, she-said" disputes such as the adherence to agreements of noninterference, demilitarization or other territorial disagreements.
In more severe cases, they also offer the ability to discover and document indicators of atrocities such as mass graves that might otherwise go unreported. While detailed reports (such as many recent ones out of Syria) delivered through social media and other innovative sources leave little ambiguity about who is responsible for what violations of human rights, it would be valuable to have real-time streaming of that sort of event both to provide immediate proof to the outside world as well as for use in future prosecution.
This type of proof would also clarify situations in which the international community suspected that actors may be misrepresenting evidence.
Furthermore, recent advances in UAV technology allows for lighter payloads and longer flight times, which permits more comprehensive situational awareness than could be provided by traditional manned aircrafts. Complementing a longer loiter tolerance is the fact that the recording devices carried by the UAVs can collect more comprehensive recordings that can be revisited for further analysis or chronological reach back.
In addition to providing information for informed response action, data derived from UAV collections can be used by humanitarian organizations to avoid potentially dangerous situations, such as accidental incursion into hostile areas or the ability to locate unfriendly forces in close proximity to neutral or civilian populations.
Hand-held UAVs are routinely used to conduct route reconnaissance for the military, and could be applied the same way in humanitarian interventions to increase movement security in potentially dangerous areas. These same systems could be used to follow movements of malicious actors and track them to their bases of operation in an effort to identify dangerous routes and territories.
UAVs can observe and relay situation reports on circumstances that might otherwise go unnoticed by interested stakeholders. News of the movements of civilian populations, who may be intentionally avoiding or seeking access to specific areas, can be relayed to actors who want to assist those groups.
Measures such as establishing safe passage corridors, delivering emergency care package drops, projecting refugee flows and trajectories and preparing camps for mass influxes can help aid organizations enhance services provided to the most vulnerable population segments.
In environments where traditional communication infrastructure is down, UASs can operate autonomously and perform missions without technological restrictions. Beyond simply monitoring and reporting on events on the ground, these systems are also capable of facilitating enablers that are highly instrumental in specific circumstances.
For example, work is under way to develop a group of UAVs that could be deployed over disaster areas to re-establish a communication infrastructure by creating a wireless network.
Embracing the possibilities and improving access
Advances in technology and general growth in the UAS industry have increased the relative affordability of such systems to a level that makes them viable for commercial use. Beyond an outright UAV system purchase there is also the option to hire companies that provide such services and data sources while operating and maintaining the vehicles on their own dime.
Matt Parker of Precision UAS Operations asserts: "Unmanned systems are commercially available and have been proven to be a valuable tool in the kit of humanitarians and first responders globally. The uses for such a tool are only limited by the vision of its user."
If stakeholders can collaborate to develop an agreement to share both responsibility and transparency, UAS potential can be maximally exploited to support broad development initiatives, specific humanitarian interventions and emerging support needs in stability operations.
(Whitney Grespin has overseen education, development, and security sector capacity building programs on five continents. She is an active member of Women in International Security, the American Political Science Association and the National Press Club.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
Defense at risk, but not why you think