A New Chapter for Drones Used in Humanitarian Aid

18th August, 2021

Drones have been around for a while in their various forms, but it wasn’t until recent years that NGOs began to use them for the purpose of humanitarian aid. The first time this happened was in 2006 when drones were used in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a surveillance and peacekeeping capacity following years of unrest.

Since then, more NGOs have realised the powerful impact that drones can have on their efforts to deliver vital humanitarian aid to some of the world’s most remote areas and dangerous places, where aid workers cannot reach. At present, almost every humanitarian NGO owns and operates its own drone.

In line with the aim of humanitarian organisations to protect, respect and save human life, some of the commonly used NGO drone applications include:

  • Delivering emergency medical aid
  • Monitoring potentially dangerous emergency scenes
  • Search and rescue
  • Extinguishing wildfires
  • Supporting damage assessments

But these methods of delivering much-needed relief are usually only carried out by individual drones. With years of technological leaps propelling drone capabilities forward, the humanitarian sector has begun to expand these applications to provide more innovative solutions that overcome the many barriers associated with providing aid. One of the most exciting recent developments is the creation of digital signage by drones to support disaster relief efforts.

What is digital drone signage?

While most drones in the humanitarian sector are used on a singular basis, Celestial has been busy inventing a brand new application, using a specially customised version of their software that allows drones to fly in specific formations to form life-saving, large scale digital signage. This is a customized version of the software that you’d expect to be used in drone shows, where hundreds of drones are programmed to fly in unison, creating show-stopping 3D animations in the night sky.

When adapted into a humanitarian context, the software can steer those in need away from danger and towards safety, delivering crucial messages and a sense of hope to those who need it most. These include signalling aid supplies, emergency evacuation directions, and public health messaging in quarantine zones.

Expanding the capabilities of our drones in humanitarian action is something that we’re very proud of at Celestial. By repurposing our proprietary hardware and software for the good of humanity, we hope to help make a positive impact on the lives of many.

How does it work?

Drone light formations may look effortless in practice, whether we’re putting on a commercial light show or using our drones in humanitarian action, there’s a whole lot of work that goes in behind the scenes to ensure each drone is in exactly the right position at the right time.

Every drone has its own individual light that acts as a pixel, contributing to a pre-designed animation. It takes hundreds of them to make up a whole image or written message in the sky. They also need to operate in as little light as possible to maximise their visibility, making them most suited to nighttime displays.

Each drone is positioned around 2 metres apart from the others, while RTK technology ensures their positions stay accurate to 20cm. This means we can deliver these vital messages across vast distances in real-time and with great precision.

The drones are operated by a small, highly skilled ground crew, who are able to monitor what’s going on as the drones feedback information on their positions.

Not only that, but the signage is fully customisable, meaning they can convey any message or image in the appropriate colour and adapt to almost any kind of disaster response application.

Why is digital signage by drones the future of humanitarian aid? 

As drone technology continues to reach new heights, our reliance on them for humanitarian aid will only increase- but implementing all these new ways of helping people in need doesn’t come without its challenges.

Some of the more common applications like mapping, where remote management of drone data collection and processing is required, can be problematic if NGOs are not fully equipped to handle highly sensitive information. Other issues like deploying drones for humanitarian purposes within conflict zones is also a concern, with a United Nations report from 2014 concluding that drones should only be used in the case of natural disasters.

Aspects like this pull robot ethics into the spotlight and cast a range of limitations across certain applications where neutrality is concerned, but digital signage from drones is not one of them. They can be used for a wide variety of messaging where disaster relief or human support is needed without collecting data or being invasive.

As reported natural disasters and global humanitarian needs increase, so will the necessity to communicate with those in need of life-saving information and hope.

Looking to the future of drones in humanitarian action 

We continue with our R&D program to facilitate ever easier deployment into the field to help aid workers and emergency personnel.  Smaller, faster and more portable drones will undoubtedly allow for better and more effective deployments of this life-saving initiative in the coming years.

One thing we can be sure of is that the latest technology we have to hand now needs to be utilised in as many situations where it can help as possible. With so much advancement over the short time drones have been used for humanitarian aid, the possibilities of future applications are endless.

We expect that our digital drone signage will only increase, along with our ability to deliver rapid response messaging in a range of critical situations. Whether it’s natural disasters or a world health crisis, this innovative and compassionate solution can make all the difference where human life is under threat.

Why we, at Celestial, are passionate about using drones for humanitarian aid

The team at Celestial is built on a strong foundation of ethical values, and so we’re passionate about using our technology for good, something that we aim for when launching messages of hope into the skies. This passion is deeply embedded within all the work that we do, across both commercial drone displays as well as our not-for-profit projects.

Our innovative technology places us in a unique position to provide human support through a medium never before seen. By using our drones in humanitarian action and imparting vital life-saving information in times of dire need, we hope to contribute to making the world a better place.