Fighting the War with the Ebola Drone, by Kristin B. Sandvik

A particularly interesting and puzzling corner of the War on Ebola imaginary is inhabited by the triad consisting of Ebola, humanitarian governance, and unmanned technology, drones more precisely. Out of this triad has emerged what will here be called ´the Ebola Drone`. The Ebola Drone has materialized from a confluence of ideas about the relationship between diseases and (inter)national security; the means and ends of effective aid delivery; and the potentiality of drones to «be good». 

The Ebola Drone is imagined to be able to do many things, including seeing, sensing and shooting Ebola infected individuals to protect Western Health Workers participating in the War on Ebola. At the same time the Ebola Drone is a reflection of the efforts made by the drone industry and the drone DIY movements to reshape the public notion of drones as spy or killer drones: the Ebola Drone is designated as a humanitarian drone; it can carry medication and other aid where health workers cannot go, due to “insecurity” or bad roads. This latter idea is not coincidentally also feeding into the current private sector frenzy to identify and promote credible and publically acceptable usages of small cargo-carrying drones. 

Mike Crang and Stephen Graham refer to such narratives as “technological fantasies” that position emergent technological systems as necessary — and effective — responses to dire threats. They note that such narratives are not just instrumental devices designed to achieve desired ends; they also actively shape the larger security cultures and afford them influence. Carved out from mainstream media as well as the more obscure parts of the blogosphere, this is precisely the type of work the multiple Ebola Drone narratives appear to be doing. 

Back in September, Ebola was framed by President Obama as an issue of national security (complete with a parallel manufacturing of Ebola terrorism scares) and by the UN as a threat to international peace and security. With the deployment of AFRICOM, the type of military medical response at play since September has been patterned on the modus operandi of the War on Terror: According to division spokesman Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis

Our job is to build Ebola treatment units and train health care workers. There is no mission for us to handle infected people, human remains or medical waste… We will have our own facility separate from the population where we will handle force protection and life support, similar to our facilities in Iraq or Afghanistan.” 

There has also been some generalized optimism about the potential of robot technology to serve as force protection and force multiplier in the War on Ebola. The answers to questions of how US health workers can help West Africa while minimizing risk to themselves (and their country) include suggestions for “mortuary robots” to deal with the “Ebola burial problem”: the Robokiyu Rescue Robot has a pair of giant claws to pull the injured or the dead onto a slide to move them away. Another idea is to use robots for crowd control to protect the physical security of hospital staff in the case of a riot. 

Then there is the Ebola Drone. There are creative proposals for using the Ebola Drone for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and surveillance, premised on the idea that it is possible and meaningful to try to “see” Ebola from a distance so as to identify infected and thus potentially threatening individuals. One commentator proposes that drone reconnaissance could enable the military to look “for what’s happening in this village? Any signs of illness? [How] are people fleeing “. Another commentator suggests that if Global Hawks were based at the US drone base in Niger, they could easily fly over Liberia, providing surveillance which could “could help the fight against Ebola by looking for unusual human behavior, like a sudden vehicle exodus or overcrowded hospitals, which might give away an outbreak before its reported.” 

Elaborate scenarios are devised to prove the value of the Ebola Drone in producing ground truth: “Someone’s sick, they call a cab to take them to the hospital, they may be shedding the virus [via fluids] in the cab. They reach the hospital and there’s no beds; then they go home and they’ve contaminated these cabs.” It’s the sort of subtle clue you can catch from space, with enough time, patience and, most importantly, attention. That’s where drones come in, which could provide more eyes on potential hotspots.” No longer just an eye in the sky, but a militarized medical eye in the sky. 

A different proposal for detecting sick locals is to use thermal imagery. In a discussion on DIYDrones, one user wonders if UAVs could be used to detect people with Ebola: “people who have Ebola have an increased temperature as it is one of the symptoms and from what I have seen on News most of the checking at airports is done by individuals with infra-red thermometer. The UAV could highlight individuals who might have symptoms and they could be isolated or given treatment.” Of course, even if infrared science would be successful in effectively detecting fever through layers of cloth and sweat, it could not detect the cause of the fever. 

Most remarkable however, is the very aspirational rhetoric on the cargo-potentiality of the Ebola Drone to drop of medication, food and water to Ebola affected populations: In testimony before Congress about the Defense Department’s efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin reiterated that, “I traveled to the region thinking we faced a healthcare crisis with a logistics challenge. In reality, we face a logistics crisis focused on a healthcare challenge.” 

The call for drones to carry medicine in crisis or to generally inaccessible areas (which unfailingly have been imagined to be Somewhere in Africa) is not new. In 2012, Jack Chow pondered about the potential of “predators for peace” to deliver HIV/AIDS medication. According to Chow, cargo drones could be a ‘game changer’ for delivering aid, which could eliminate or reduce the type of corruption, theft and insecurity (as well as the consequences of difficult weather conditions and problems caused by disasters) which frequently undermines delivery of aid. 

Conversely, the manufacturers of smaller cargo drones for civil airspace heavily emphasize their potential humanitarian use: AERMATICA, an Italian UAV manufacturer, has suggested that ´Civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief operations”, evolving from performing relief-site monitoring tasks to a more incisive participation in on-field operations through the use of cargo drones. Part of a broader movement of Silicon Valley UAV-entrepreneurs, the startup Matternet describes plans to create ‘the next paradigm for transportation’ of goods and medicines to remote settlements, through a network of unmanned aerial vehicles, while another startup, ARIA (Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Arrays), wants to provide rural Africa with a humanitarian drone skyway network, which can help launch ‘a new strategy of fighting poverty from the air’. There is the MedicAir Courier UAV from BFA Systems, and countless other examples. While DHL, Google and Amazon have joined the race to develop cargo drones, the amateur hour is far from over, and neither is the struggle for access to airspace and popular legitimacy. 

The Ebola Drone is imagined as a useful way to carry what doesn’t exist either here or there- an effective and available cure for Ebola: according to one commentator, “a flying drone can prove useful to send medical supplies to remote (dangerous) locations. It would act as a simple way to either stop or slow down the spread of the Ebola virus” and be a “safer alternative than people travelling to dangerous areas just to deliver materials.” Moreover, it is unclear how the drone pilot would identify the individuals, communities or health facilities that were to receive and distribute this medication. 

The Ebola Drone can also mediate closed airspace: “surely the United States can use them to bring protective medical gear to hospitals in countries like Liberia or Sierra Leone. Closed borders to commercial air traffic are no barriers to drones.” Finally, the Ebola Drone is also tasked with the old jobs of bringing both hope and providing pamphlet drops to suffering peoples, as if despair and ignorance was behind the whole epidemic: “Drones also can bring hope and, say, by pamphlets deliver valuable information to West Africans”. As “knowledge can combat disease and the fear that precedes”, these pamphlets are supposed to inform people of how to protect themselves, how to discern the signs of sickness, and how to treat the stricken or safely dispose of the dead.” 

Existing technology has very limited cargo-carrying capacity and can fly only for a short time. As pertinently observed by Timothy Luege, the problem is the lack of a “possible scenario in the current Ebola crisis in which you can’t deliver something more efficiently with a motorbike within the area that the drone can cover”. According to Luege, this builds on a misdiagnosis of Ebola as a problem of delivering drugs to remote areas (as we know, the current Ebola outbreak is so serious because it is urban in nature). 

Finally, understanding Ebola as a “supply chain challenge” also engages the classic technology transfer argument where military technology is better and re-use for civilian purposes is both responsible and economic: in response to the regions bad roads and shortage of trucks, civilian drone technology cannot deliver the “tons of aid” needed. Hence “military-grade drones” are the answer. Part of the appeal of drones is their ability to undertake ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ military jobs. Some of the dullest, dirtiest and most dangerous work is related to supplying troops. The Kaman K-Max has been “extraordinarily successful at delivering supplies to American troops in remote parts of Afghanistan” and “could easily be repurposed to deliver humanitarian aid” (from 2011, the manufacturer of the K-Max began foreseeing its migration into civilian use, explicitly including humanitarian relief);  it could solve problems related to infrastructure and crime and enable more remote management, which would reduce the number of personnel needed on the ground in remote regions.  The not-unexpected second part of this argument is that the US already owns the K-Max, which is just sitting idle in storage.  

In the end, then, it seems the Ebola Drone is mostly a set of imaginations about extended uses of military drones, whereby some drones do good to make many drones look better. Imagined for deployment in the War on Ebola, it is endowed with the potentiality for being surgically precise, avoiding the burden of having boots on the ground and allowing for remote management. Meanwhile, West Africans are strangely absent from the technoscape created by Ebola drone imaginary: it is a technoscape inhabited only by Western actors, who possess hardware, technical skills and the knowhow of crisis management. The locals seem to be dead, infected or potentially infected. They are allotted roles as threat subjects (the Ebola terrorist scenario) or victims (in a humanitarian crisis), but either way as individuals and communities mostly void of agency. However, we should remember that while this resonates with the rationales underlying the militarized approach to Ebola, and the determinist views of technology accompanying it; on a different level the militarized approach is also a response to a lack of knowledge about how to deal effectively with disease emerging from structural injustice, a post-conflict context and “culture”. Just as drones can’t clean up combat, no Ebola Drone can ever “combat” disease.

Kristin B. Sandvik is Senior Researcher PRIO and Director the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. She holds an SJD from Harvard Law School.

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4 Responses to Fighting the War with the Ebola Drone, by Kristin B. Sandvik

  1. Pingback: Evaluating Ebola: the politics of the military response narrative | Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies

  2. Pingback: The Whimper, Not Bang, of Humanitarian Drones | Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies

  3. Pingback: The Whimper, Not Bang, of Humanitarian Drones - The Cipher Brief

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