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The user of drones is being highly advocated to spot refugees crossing the sea by rights based groups.Alou Sango was overwhelmed with fear after being caught helpless in the middle of the Mediterranean. He believes that his journey from Libya seemed to be ending in death as the gasoline in the boat had finished.Sango originated from Mali and so had to get onto an overcrowded boat similar to thousands of others to get away from the crisis hit region. Several days into the voyage, the captain lost his way and in the absence of a GPS position to convey to the Italian rescue crews, the hope of 100 or so passengers was all but over.

A Chinese ship eventually identified the rubber boat which helped the migrants and escorted them to Italy where Sango, recently turned 24, is studying through Sant’Egidio Community, a charity headquartered in Rome.Sango’s voyage across the Mediterranean is an example of the massive challenge that search and rescue teams have to face: not being able to spot the small sized rubber boats floating across the huge sea.As warmer weather approaches, the attempts to cross the Mediterranean also increase, and so the rescuers are looking to get help from once considered sophisticated killing machines – drones – to help save refugees.

Ian Ruggier is heading the operations at the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) which is an independent search and rescue organization. He says that a drone loaded with a camera allows his team to spot where help is required as the real time video footage greatly helps in the decision making process. MOAS launched operations in 2014 and since then have been able to rescue 11,685 people in the central Mediterranean with the help of small unmanned aircraft. The rescued do not really know their rescuer as Ian Ruggier says that the machines fly too high for the refugees and asylum seekers to spot in the sky.

Broadening Vistas

The 250Kg drone takes from the deck of a MOAS ship patrolling the sea water and broadcasts real time video footage to the three member rescue crew which operates its daily flight operations. The camera transmits both conventional and thermal imagery.Ruggier thinks of a couple of instances when a tiny blip appeared in the image well beyond the flight trajectory and on being further investigated, a few struggling dinghies were spotted. He says that in the absence of a drone flying in the horizon, there was a high probability of the boats not being spotted, or spotted too late for them to be rescued.

With the news of 500 people drowning in the Mediterranean because of a capsized boat have brought to the limelight the risks associated with missing out on boats. The 41 survivors told the UN refugee agency that they had floated for three days before being spotted by rescue crews.There have been reports of about 1,261 casualties or people gone missing on their way to Europe this year while UN statistics reveal that about 181,000 successfully crossed the Mediterranean in 2016.

MOAS is planning to keep using drones in the future. Currently, they are using an aircraft engineered by an Austrian company Schiebel which was also deployed in Ukraine to monitor the peace deal. The company’s owner, Hans Georg Schiebel, says that the primary aim of the drone is to expand the end user’s horizons. The spherical shape of the earth makes it complicated to see far at the sea which tends to restrict sight.

Working in sync with agencies

Drones have proved to be extremely beneficial in search and rescue missions but the national authorities are still not eyeing them from that perspective. Drones are not being used by the Italian coastguard which carried out successful search and rescue missions of over 150,000 people.Costs are a major hurdle in this regard as monthly fee for a drone and personnel is $340,000. Rudimentary regulations associated with drones and entering a country’s airspace are among other challenges.

Due to the proximity of territorial waters on the path between Greece and Turkey which is an important Mediterranean route, operation of drones has been difficult to implement.Roushan Zenooz is a volunteer who travelled from USA to Greece. He says that he made efforts for a drone to be deputed off the island of Lesbos. The Greek coastguard rejected the idea due to an agreement with the neighboring Turkey that prevented the use of drones in the area.
Zenooz had contacted Danoffice IT, the Danish sister company of SkyWatch, which is a drone development company. Danoffice IT had agreed to conduct a feasibility study in a couple of weeks. Jacob Petersen is serving as the global sales manager at Danoffice and says that his company’s 2Kg drones have a range of 30Km and cost about a third of Schiebel’s model.

He says that the company decided not to fly its drones in the forbidden region amidst all the political uncertainty and adhere to the laws of the land. Petersen is of the view that there is an urgent need to alter the existing laws and civial aviation authorities should reach on a consensus with regard to drones. At the same time, he says, rights based groups should develop standards similar to those that regulate vehicles in emergencies.There are remarkable instances of success in other cases of emergency response such as earthquakes where drones have played a vital role. UAViators is a network of drone pilots and operators in humanitarian and development organizations and was founded by Patrick Meier. He says that his organization was recently contacted in Ecuador in the aftermath of the earthquake.

He says that it was not such a common sight a couple of years back to have government agencies requesting support from UAVs after natural catastrophes. Also, it was quite rare to be able to find drone operators in the country but Meier was able to search out a couple of pilots from the UAViators network.He says that his organization is increasingly working towards taking support from the local partners in a bid to quicken up the emergency response and avoid all the issues that can serve as impediments when endeavoring to import drones into a certain country.

Jessie Mooberry, a humanitarian drone consultant, says that drones turned out to be extremely helpful after the terrible earthquake in Nepal. Mooberry has also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to drop aid packages from drones in Syria.He says that he along with his colleagues contacted the air force and the aviation authority in Nepal after the earthquake but when it came to Syria, there was no one group that could be contacted which led to the failed use of drones in the region.Mooberry suggests that there is a need to set up a global coordinating framework with the direct involvement of humanitarian organizations who should keep the drone users coordinated, provide them with the latest information and regulate airspace. She says that this is the only way forward to exploit this magnificent technology in humanitarian response.She believes that this has to be done at all costs as these drones are just too handy to let them go!

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