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Drones in the Service of Human Rights

Using Robotic Technology to Research Waste Burning in Lebanon

A drone-acquired image of a garbage dump in Bar Elias, Lebanon, where open burns are harming the health of nearby residents. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch released a report this month that included, for the first time in our history, photographic evidence that we collected with a semi-autonomous robotic plane, commonly called a drone.

Built by Sensefly, a subsidiary of Parrot Group, our small, hand-launched drone helped us to investigate the health risks of widespread open burning of household waste in Lebanon – a result of the government’s failure to manage solid waste – in innovative ways that complement our traditional research.

We operated our drone over three open dump sites with official permission and collected several thousand aerial images at a resolution impossible for satellite sensors.

The images revealed fresh burn scars and large ash deposits from extensive prior burns. This corroborated witness testimony about the open burning of waste that has caused respiratory illnesses and other serious health problems in nearby communities.

The potential of drones, and robotic technology more broadly, for human rights investigations is strongest when satellite sensors are not feasible or appropriate to use.

Drones can operate under heavy clouds and at times of the day and night when satellite sensors cannot. And drones allow us to collect images and live video remotely at a level of detail impossible with even the most advanced satellite technology.

Most importantly, drones offer an alternative to field research that can be significantly safer and more secure, for example, when physical access is restricted or denied.

At the same time, the use of drones in human rights investigations presents a range of legal, security, and privacy issues that require special consideration, especially in insecure environments where the possession or use of such technology could endanger ourselves and others.

To address these issues, Human Rights Watch conducts a rigorous review before any drone flight. As we and others deploy new technologies, documenting abuses cannot come at the expense of ethical and professional norms.

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