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Monitoring Human Rights in Conflict: The Use of Drones is Still a Chimera


Dr. Tal Simmons, Virginia Commonwealth University; human rights representative on the Coalition Steering Committee


  • Speakers
    • Cono Giardullo (Moderator), Associate Fellow, Italian Institute of International Affairs (IAI)
    • Maryline Laurent, Professor, Télécom SudParis, Institut polytechnique de Paris
    • Anil M. Shende, Professor of Computer Science, Roanoke College
    • Francesco Betti Sorbelli, Researcher, University of Perugia
  • Overall Summary
    • The session presented the work of a group of scholars and activists concerned with the development of technology for using drones to provide live-stream video in conflicts.  The team presented examples of how drones have been used by both the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and pondered the impact that the data provided by drones has had and may have in the future towards monitoring a variety of situations.
    •  Some uses envisioned for drones were:
      • Supplement the knowledge of forces on the ground protecting civilian populations
      • Use as an early warning tool to trace the movement of internally displaced populations (IDPs), which might allow the positioning of NGOs and resources of shelter, food, and medical assistance
      • Influence the decisions of diplomatic and/or political bodies (impact and advocacy), if images could be live-streamed from conflicts, particularly if international humanitarian law was being violated. 
  • Limitations of Drones
    • Limitations of drone usage were also discussed, and included the perception of drones by the vulnerable civilian populace (e.g. prior exposure to “Reaper” drones in Yemen, which has led to widespread fear of drones) as well as the political sensitivity of the images provided, privacy concerns of local populations, and informed consent issues. 
    • Technical limitations consumed a broader portion of the presentation and included security issues (jamming of drone communications, shooting down of drones, etc.) as well as issues of communication and infrastructure. Details of these concerns were discussed, e.g. use of drone swarms to collect images from multiple perspectives, and mitigate the effects of jamming by using wireless server networks (WSN) and ground sensors, which would help to both geo-locate the drones and allow inter-drone communication (a Mesh network and block chain storage of data) so that data loss would be minimized if one failed or was lost. 
  • Positional Data
    • This segued into a discussion of positional data for specific things (e.g. a tank) seen in drone imagery – i.e. where is that specific tank re: GPS coordinates.  A drone swarm might produce a richer source of images (multiple images from multiple drones), but would require inter-drone communication, which, at present, is dependent on internet access. 
    • A drone swarm might also be able to guide other drones which had lost communication with their remote pilots.  The ability of drones, via distributed computing, to perform image analysis in flight was also posited – and this raised the issue of machine learning algorithm false positives, and the potential for over-reporting.
  • Issues with Drones
    • Security issues were raised by the panel – e.g. spoofing, energy depletions, privacy abuse of images, data flow encryption, privacy issues such as identification of drones – and some potential solutions were offered. 
    • The legal framework regarding the admissibility of evidence from drones in a court of law – given the amount of data manipulation required to produce a 3D video image – was also a concern raised, as well as the ingress of the drones themselves re: perceived issues of sovereignty.   
  • Questions
    • Questions from the participants covered broad ground and included:
      • Funding for this type of development
      • Details of block chain storage
      • Analogies to these issues in other disciplines
      • Whether drones could inform on which side in a conflict had shot them down (the answer was no)
      • Use of different frequencies for communications and filtering for different ranges
      • Admissibility of evidence in court, which ascribes the judge as gatekeeper of admissibility of evidence (e.g. Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals 1993) and what importance would be ascribed to the images re: the International Criminal Court (ICC) or Inter-American Court on Human Rights, etc. and the need to provide proof re: original data and how to translate that through the image-generating process.
    •  Lastly the role of manufacturers re: privacy for users and energy requirements was discussed re: the use of external contractors.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • Panelists summarized their presentation as building a network of drones which employed technology to ensure security and privacy and placing a WSN on the ground.
  • Needs include increased communication infrastructure, increased flight time, an enlarged monitored area, overlapping images from different perspectives and increase in the efficiency of data analysis. 
  • Issues include sensitivity to privacy, awareness of vulnerable populations, legal frameworks.



  • Drones
  • Monitoring of Conflict
  • Technology
  • Security
  • Law


Additional Resources: