Value Sensitive Innovation: Integrating Ethical Values in the Humanitarian Use of Drones

What ethical challenges exist for the use of drones in humanitarian work?

Project Summary

New and innovative technologies can help in all aspects of life. It is therefore not surprising that humanitarian organizations have started to make use of such new technologies, especially when it comes to response in crises. Yet, these innovative technologies are not ethically uncontested and humanitarian actors will have to come up with new policies and guidelines. Using the example of drones, and combining findings of case studies and normative analysis, this project aims to create an ethical framework, and publicly accessible governance toolkits in order to ensure responsible innovation.

The main research questions of the project are:

  •  What is known about the interplay between technological innovation and ethical values, norms and commitments, in   the humanitarian use of drones?
  • How should the shared or disparate values of humanitarian stakeholders be interpreted and addressed in the development and deployment of drones? 
  • What policies and guidance tools can best direct the integration of ethical values in humanitarian innovations? 

In order to adress these questions, the research team has developed a blended methodology, including a scoping review of academic and informal literature concerning the interplay of ethical values and technological innovation; case studies within the constructivist paradigm on current drone practices in humanitarian contexts; the development of a guidance framework and toolkits with partners and practitionners, for future use.

Executive Summary

Emerging technologies are widely used in humanitarian and development settings by international organizations globally. Drones represent the first wave of robotic technology applied in the humanitarian sector, demonstrating remarkable capacities to speed up humanitarian response and optimize development operations. Although the so-called “humanitarian drones” provide a unique solution to harness the power of innovation in assisting humanitarian and development work, technological innovation intersects with moral norms and beliefs. They also raise questions regarding impacts for vulnerable populations that the sector strives to serve as its mission commitment. This project provided in-depth investigations into the dynamics between human values and technological innovation in the aid sector. It followed a bottom-up approach encompassing a comprehensive literature review and two case studies in Nepal and Malawi (the case studies in Malawi involved two field trips). As a key outcome, a framework for the ethical assessment of humanitarian drones (FEAHD) was developed to help stakeholders enhance value sensitivity in humanitarian drone practices. In addition, six scientific publications, one project video and four webinar videos have been created. These outputs, freely available on a project website, contribute to the ongoing debate around “humanitarian drones”, and shed light on the nature, type and scope of ethical challenges that humanitarian organizations may confront when embarking upon innovation programs.


The current humanitarian use of drones is focused on two applications: disaster mapping and medical delivery. In response to the growing interest in drone deployment in the aid sector, we propose the Framework for the Ethical Assessment of Humanitarian Drones (FEAHD) to help enhance value sensitivity in humanitarian innovation activities. Following a bottom-up approach encompassing a comprehensive literature review and two empirical studies, this work illuminates the nature, type and scope of challenges humanitarian organizations confront when embarking upon innovation programs. The framework fills a gap between high-level, principle-based guidance related to humanitarian innovation, and detailed operation-oriented checklists for drone projects. It is, thus, interdisciplinary, empirically-informed, and responsive to stakeholders’ expressed interests.

Working Paper

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

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 humani- tarian 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 intro- duced by Arksey and O’Malley, this scoping review offers an assessment of the ethi- cal considerations discussed in the academic and gray literature based on a screen- ing 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 iden- tity 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 ini- tial 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.


“We Live on Hope…” Ethical Considerations of Humanitarian Use of Drones in Post-Disaster Nepal

The noticeable turn to technology in humanitarian action raises issues related to humanitarianism, sovereignty, as well as equality and access for at-risk populations in disaster zones or remote areas lacking sufficient healthcare services. On a technical level, practical challenges include heightened risks of data safety and security, and the potential malicious use of technology. On a societal level, humanitarian innovation may disrupt relations between different stakeholders, may widen inequality between those with access and those without, and may threaten privacy, disproportionately affecting the vulnerable population. Drawing on the empirical findings of a case study of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, this paper presents an in-depth normative analysis to identify contextualised ethical considerations, and illuminate the wider debate about how technological innovation in the aid sector should be operationalised. In conclusion, on the normative level, a prudent attitude in adopting novel technology in the aid sector is required; while on the operational level, proposals for actionable ethical standards to guide and safeguard sector-wide innovation practices are needed.

Working Paper

“A Success Story that Can Be Sold”? A Case Study of Humanitarian Use of Drones

Increasingly, humanitarian organizations across the globe have been implementing innovative technologies in their practice as they respond to the needs of communities affected by conflicts, disasters, and public health emergencies. However, technological innovation may intersect with moral values, norms, and commitments, and may challenge humanitarian imperatives. Through the examination of an empirical case study on drone mapping, this paper aims to explore three questions: (1) What are the dynamics between aid delivery and technological innovation in the humanitarian enterprise? (2) How are structural problems addressed in an environment in which technology is being portrayed as a force for change? (3) What moral responsibilities towards vulnerable populations should humanitarian stakeholders bear when introducing innovative technologies in humanitarian action. Discussion revolves around the ideology of “technological utopia”, and the normative role of technology in the aid sector – to make substantive impacts, or to produce “success stories”. In conclusion, a call for rigorous ethical analysis to help foster value sensitive humanitarian innovation (VSHI) is made.


“Killing Two Birds with One Stone”? A Case Study of Development Use of Drones

With the rise of the “humanitarian drone” in recent years, drones have become one of the most controversial public interest technologies that have gained increasing media attention. It is worth noting that, although there is a perception in the aid sector that drones hold the promise to reinvent the health supply logistics, to date, routine drone delivery is still relatively new and largely unproven. This paper presents a recent field study conducted in 2019, where drones were deployed in Malawi to help address the last mile challenge in medical supply delivery, and where a noticeable mentality of “killing two birds with one stone” around the attempt of using drones in resource-poor settings is observed. The objective of the paper is to shed light, through a real-world case study and from the ethical perspective, on the impacts of implementing such a systemic change in the existing health supply chain systems. As conclusion, a call for more reflexive approaches for the critical examination, as well as more structured guidance for the responsible evaluation, of medical cargo drones is raised.

Working Paper

Supporting value sensitivity in the humanitarian use of drones through an ethics assessment framework

The current humanitarian use of drones is focused on two applications: disaster mapping and medical supply delivery. In response to the growing interest in drone deployment in the aid sector, we sought to develop a resource to support value sensitivity in humanitarian drone activities. Following a bottom-up approach encompassing a comprehensive literature review, two empirical studies, a review of guidance documents, and consultations with experts, this work illuminates the nature and scope of ethical challenges encountered by humanitarian organizations embarking upon innovation programmes. The Framework for the Ethics Assessment of Humanitarian Drones (FEAHD) identifies five values and five key questions related to ethical considerations along the decision chain of humanitarian drone activities. It fills a gap between high-level, principle-based guidance related to humanitarian innovation, and detailed operation-oriented checklists for projects involving the use of drones. In this way, the FEAHD contributes to support value sensitivity in the humanitarian use of drones.

Working Paper

“As It Is Africa, It Is Ok”? Ethical Considerations of Development Use of Drones for Delivery in Malawi

Since 2016, drones have been deployed in various development projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where trials, tests, and studies have been rolled out in countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The use cases of drones vary, ranging from imagery collection to transportation of vaccines, lab samples, blood prod- ucts, and other medical supplies. A wide range of stakeholders is involved, including governments, international organizations, educational institutions, as well as industry. Based on a field study conducted in 2019, this article investigates how drones are used for medical supply delivery in Malawi—a country where the com- munity is underserved for healthcare and related infrastructure underdeveloped, while airspace is largely open and regulations generally relaxed. The objective of presenting this case study is to contribute to the evidence regarding the rapid deployment of medical cargo drones across the African continent, and to spark critical reflections over the utility, suitability, and impacts of incorporating drones in the existing health supply chain systems in resource-poor settings. The discussion revolves around two aspects: 1) the emergent “African Drone Rise”—is it ok “as it is Africa”? and 2) the normative role of technology in the aid sector—is it “a solution looking for a problem”? In con- clusion, a call for more structured guidance for the systematic examination and evaluation of the medical cargo drone case is raised.

Research Team

Markus Christen
University of Zurich

Matthew Hunt
McGill University, Montreal

Ning Wang
Principal Member
University of Zurich

Thomas Burri
Associated Member
University of St. Gallen

Gloria Gonzalez Fuster
Associated Member
Vrije Universiteit, Brussels





Policy domains



Nepal, Malawi

Host Institution