Tapping the Potential of Drones for Development

April 25, 2017


Development professionals operate in diverse and often complex environments, which can make their work time-consuming, expensive, and risky. The design and implementation of large infrastructure projects, for example, require extensive data collection, detailed mapping, as well as regular inspections; when conducted in remote or hard-to-reach areas, these operations usually come with a hefty price tag, and may compromise the safety of staff. In a disaster situation, search and rescue or damage assessment typically involve costly and labour-intensive helicopter missions in close proximity to the land with a significant risk of incidents.


In an effort to overcome or mitigate these challenges, development practitioners are increasingly looking into the potential of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Commonly referred to as drones, UAVs are aircraft without a human pilot aboard that were originally developed for sensitive and complex military operations.

The civilian drones used today in development work are smaller than military ones, have a much shorter range and maximum flight time, and don’t need to be equipped with expensive and sophisticated military electronics. On the other hand, civilian drones inherit from military applications decades of research that have led to the creation of a commercially viable drone technology. Their versatility, along with plummeting acquisition and operating costs, have made drones a popular tool for many non-military uses, such as aerial photography, land surveying, maintenance assessment, scientific research, product deliveries, agriculture, etc.

Thanks to these recent advances, drones can support international development in multiple ways, either by assisting staff in labour-intensive and risky operations, or by conducting work that was previously impossible without UAVs.

The benefits of resorting to drones in development projects include:

  • Consistently lower operational costs
  • In project areas, lower operational risk to development workers, local residents, and infrastructure
  • Quicker, more efficient planning and implementation of projects
  • Higher quality data available in larger quantities
  • More flexible, affordable verification tools

Opportunities and challenges

Although it is still an emerging field with niche applications, the use of civilian drones in development projects is expanding quickly. Projects in the World Bank Group portfolio currently rely on drone technology for a variety of purposes:

  • Land administration
  • Risk assessment
  • Forestry management
  • Urban planning
  • Coastal zone management
  • Infrastructure monitoring
  • Post-disaster damage assessment

Potential future uses in development work include:

  • Delivery of medical supplies
  • Search and rescue
  • Firefighting (urban and forest fires)
  • Radiological, atmospheric, and environmental sensing
  • Agriculture (data collection and crop management)
  • Internet connectivity in rural and remote areas (through a perpetually airborne network of UAVs)
  • Meteorology (re-usable airborne weather sensors mounted on UAVs could be a lot more efficient that the disposable balloon equipment used today)
  • Humanitarian operations
  • Natural resources conservation and management

As the use of UAV technology is expanding to a growing number of areas, it has to adapt to new operational challenges and risks.

Another challenge that has stifled the development of drone technology is the absence of an adequate regulatory framework. Certain jurisdictions have no legislation at all regarding UAV activity, while others struggle to provide an enabling environment that encourages investment and innovation whilst ensuring safe operations and effective risk management. Striking the right balance is all the more difficult as UAVs technology and markets have been evolving at a dizzying pace.

The World Bank sees tremendous potential in using drones to support development operations. As we scale up the use of UAVs through a number of innovative pilots, we are committed to leveraging this technology in a way that protects the safety and privacy of our staff, our client countries, and their populations.