Ethics about the “Good” Drones

By on June 20th, 2021 in Video & Podcasts, Videos

This SSIT Guest Lecture was presented by Ning Wang, IBME, University of Zurich, Switzerland at a Joint Chapter Meeting organised by IEEE UK and Ireland SSIT Chapter and co-hosted by IEEE Pittsburgh SSIT Chapter, IEEE Vancouver Section Joint SSIT Chapter and SSIT IST-Africa SIGHT on 29 April 2021. Click here to view the recording on


Emerging technologies are widely used in humanitarian, development and healthcare settings by aid agencies globally. Many of these solutions involve the use of digital technologies, such as geographic information systems, smartphone apps, predictive algorithms, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones. The latter represents the first wave of robotic technology applied in the aid sector, demonstrating its remarkable capacity to speed up humanitarian responses and to optimize aid supply operations. However, along with enthusiasm comes uncertainty. Technological innovation intersects with values, norms, beliefs and various moral commitments. In the aid sector, the use of novel technology may challenge the principle of ‘Do No Harm’, may raise questions related to sovereignty, and may negatively affect equality and access for at-risk populations in disaster zones and remote areas lacking sufficient healthcare services. Additionally, humanitarian innovation may also disrupt relationships between various actors including introducing new players (e.g., private for-profit companies and networks of digital volunteers), may widen or narrow inequality between those with access and those without, and may lower or raise security and privacy risks disproportionately affecting the already vulnerable.

This lecture is informed by a research project on the ethical considerations associated with the humanitarian use of drones. The findings are based on two recent field studies conducted in Nepal and Malawi, during 2019-2020, around two main applications – disaster mapping and medical supply delivery. The lecture will focus on the Malawi study with the expectation to inform the community on the gaps and needs with respect to the ethical challenges that humanitarian innovation may invoke in the case of the so-called “good” drones.


Ning Wang joined the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME) in February 2017. She acquired her Master’s degrees in Applied Ethics (MA) and Political Science (MS) from Norway and Sweden respectively, during 2007-2011. From 2010 to 2013, Ning worked as an ethicist for a number of international organizations on policy development, in Geneva, Switzerland. From 2013 to 2016, Ning worked for a Swiss-based multinational company as the Business Ethics Manager, and subsequently a humanitarian NGO as the Ethics Policy Advisor, in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2017, Ning returned to academia to pursue a PhD project at the Program of Biomedical Ethics and Law, University of Zurich.

In her current project, Ning works on value sensitive innovation, investigating how to integrate ethical values in the humanitarian use of drones, in collaboration with international organizations and academic institutions across Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific. Through empirical case studies, Ning intends to address the ethical, legal and regulatory challenges new technologies pose to society, propose appropriate and sensible analytical approaches in the understanding and evaluation of them, and outline feasible and pragmatic policy recommendations for the responsible development and deployment of them.