From Aerial to Maritime Robotics for Payload Delivery?

WeRobotics is co-creating a global network of social innovation labs to accelerate the transfer of appropriate robotics solutions to local partners who need them the most. Launched last week at the prestigious 2016 International Drones & Robotics for Good Awards in Dubai, WeRobotics seeks to democratize the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One of several new labs under consideration is Cuyo Flying Labs in the Cuyo Archipelago of the Philippines.


Our local partners in this district are outstanding public health professionals who have made a clear and data-driven case for exploring robotics solutions to improve the delivery of essential medicines across the islands of the Archipelago. WeRobotics has reached out to it’s network of Technology Partners to identify a cross-section of aerial robotics solutions. We plan to pilot and evaluate these solutions together with our local partners this year; just waiting to hear back on a number of grant proposals.


Aerial robots are not the only robotics solutions out there, however. Indeed, a number of contestants at the International Drones & Robotics Awards presented maritime robotics platforms. One team from NYU Abu Dhabi presented their Reef Rover solution, which I gave high marks to (I served on the panel of judges for the finals of the championship and also had the honor of giving the opening Keynote). Fellow keynote speaker David Lang from OpenROV also presented his group’s maritime robotics solution.

So I caught up with David and told him about the possible Cuyo project. I asked him about possible autonomous maritime robotics solutions that could carry a 1- 2kg payload across a 20-mile stretch. Given that GPS signals and radio waves do not travel well underwater, the solution would need to be a surface-water robot. That said, Team NYU did come up with a neat solution to this issue as shown in the above video. But said solution may be problematic for long distances. In any event, I was surprised to learn from David that existing surface-water robotics solutions would likely range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I asked David about possibility hacking a remote control boat since these toys cost a couple hundred dollars at most.


This could totally be done, according to David. He encouraged me to blog about the humanitarian applications of small autonomous boats and to share my post with the DIY community for feedback. So here we are. I also did some research on autonomous boats and came across this high school project—aptly titled DIY boat—along with the short video below. These kinds of boats can travel between 10-25 miles per hour. Battery power won’t be an issue but salt water and robotics are not the best of friends. So developing a persistent & robust solution with sense and avoid technology will need more thought.

As for operating this in Cuyo, we could test out the autonomous boat late at night when no commercial boats or fishermen are likely to be out and about. The water routes would be automatically programmed so the maritime robot would simply do several runs back and forth. In other words, even if the boat can “only” carry 1kg-2kg at a time, the frequency of the trips could make up for the low payload weight—just like aerial robotics. Of course, we’d have to look up the Philippine’s maritime regulations to figure out what kinda of permits might be necessary, but I assume these regulations may not be as demanding as aviation regulations.

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In any event, WeRobotics seeks to work across multiple robotics platforms, from aerial robotics to terrestrial robotics to maritime robotics. For now, though, most of the world’s attention is focused on the hype surrounding small autonomous aerial robots. But aerial robotics won’t be the one and only wave of robotics to impact the social good space. So f you know of existing maritime solutions that we could pilot this year as part of Cuyo Flying Labs, then I’d be most grateful if you could either get in touch or leave a comment below. Many thanks!

WeRobotics: Democratizing the Fourth Industrial Revolution

I just gave the opening Keynote at the prestigious 2016 International Drones & Robotics for Good Awards in Dubai. What an honor to keynote this truly unique event for a second time and return to the outstanding venue pictured below. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, the organizing team of the awards kindly invited us to launch our new international initiative, WeRobotics, which seeks to scale the impact of “Robotics for Good” in humanitarian aid, global development and environmental protection.

One reason why I’m so passionate about this new initiative is because it focuses explicitly on empowering local partners in developing countries with appropriate robotics solutions based on their needs and priorities. Our aim is to transfer both relevant skills and intelligent robotics solutions to our local partners so they can scale the impact of their own aid, development and environmental projects. In so doing, our local partners become an increasingly skilled, local workforce; one ready to meet the growing demand for robotics as a service in their countries. In sum, we seek to democratize the Fourth Industrial Revolution and thus reduce the inequality that comes with disruptive technologies.

Announcing the launch of a new global initiative is of course the easiest part. The hard work begins now in growing a global network of labs – Flying Labs – with leading technology partners and outstanding local partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Here’s how you can get involved and join this unique new effort. Onwards!

Humanitarian Robotics and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Treat of a Jobless Future is one of the best books I read in 2015. It is a New York Times Bestseller and was selected as the Top Business Book of 2015 by Forbes. “We are, in all likelihood, at the leading edge of an explosive wave of innovation,” writes Ford. This wave will “ultimately produce robots geared toward nearly every conceivable commer-cial, industrial and consumer task.” Some of these robots may prove invaluable in supporting humanitarian efforts. Indeed, some already have. Saving lives and alleviating suffering during disasters is typically considered a plus. Robotics solutions can scale these efforts. The catch lies in the last two words of the book’s title: Jobless Future.

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The robotics solutions that are starting to have an impact in the humanitarian space are largely “first generation” robotics platforms. The real explosion and impact will be felt during the second wave when these systems become more intelligent, autonomous and persistent. This may radically improve the efficiency and productivity of humanitarian efforts, thereby alleviating more suffering and potentially saving more lives. The tradeoff, however, may be staggering levels of unemployment. According to Ford, “nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within roughly the next two decades.” Could this also become true for those employed by aid organizations?

If so, some humanitarian professionals will be particularly pleased. I’ve often heard this notion that humanitarians should seek to work themselves out of a job. If we do our job well, the thinking goes, then we should be able to work ourselves out of a job. If we build local capacity, for example, and empower our local counterparts to take over, then our job will be done as we will no longer be needed. Of course, reality is somewhat more complicated.

Lets game this out using a few scenarios. Take flying robots like “UAVs” or “drones”, for example. Aerial robots can collect data (e.g., take photographs) of disaster affected areas and carry payloads (e.g., essential medicines) from clinics to villages. Take the second use-case, payload delivery. I’ve been exploring this use-case for a number of projects in Nepal and the Philippines. It currently takes 7 hours to transport medicines between a hospital and a remote, mountain village in Nepal’s Myagdi District. The reason it takes this long is because of the very mountainous terrain which in turn means there are no roads connecting said village. As a result, the medicines need to be transported by foot. The aerial distance between these two points is only 5 miles, however, a distance that could be covered in about 20 minutes by a flying drone. In sum, the robot would be 400 minutes faster.

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Now what happens to the local Napali carriers who were employed to walk the 7 hours to deliver those essential medicines? They’re out of work. Could they be retrained and hired to operate, maintain or recover UAVs that deliver the medicines? Yes, possibly. Three international companies I’ve spoken to are planning to follow this strategy. But does operating an intelligent, autonomous system really require 10 ex-carriers? Unlikely. A company might just hire two ex-carriers to operate the system, switch the batteries, change payloads, etc. Any other carriers, however, are now unemployed. That said, since the UAV is being used to service this one remote village, the same UAV could be used to serve a other “nearby” villages that do not have access to medicines. No carriers serve these locations. As such, the carriers who were rendered obsolete due to the first UAV route, may potentially have new jobs after all by helping the company expand their service through new UAV routes.

But what if they don’t regain employment? Does the positive social impact that results from more frequent and reliable delivery of essential medicines via aerial robotics solutions outweigh the negative social impact of local job losses? I suppose it depends on which theory of normative ethics you subscribe to. In any event, this is all quite speculative; there more variables that need to be factored into the above narrative; highly local, seasonal and context specific variables. I could certainly see the scenario in Nepal playing out in many different ways, both positively and negatively.


What about the use of robotics for data collection? Perhaps this one is more straightforward. The comparative analysis here is typically with satellites (space robotics) and manned aircraft. UAVs can collect certain data that satellites and manned aircraft are unable to. This may explain why industry statistics confirm that the commercial UAV space is creating new jobs rather than taking them away from the space & aviation industries. Since our Nepali carriers above are already trained in operating UAVs for payload delivery, they would already have most of the core skills needed to operate UAVs for data collection purposes. And as it turns out, there is growing local demand for such services in Nepal.

In any event, robotics companies should carry out impact assessments vis-a-vis local employment opportunities—particularly for projects that focus on  payload delivery systems. A percentage of the profit made by that provide more efficient aerial delivery services should be used to retrain those rendered obsolete by the introduction of robotics solutions, particularly for projects in low income districts. Martin Ford doesn’t buy the policy around retraining, however. In fact, he basically demolishes the entire economic argument with rather compelling historical evidence. Instead, he recommends the use of guaranteed minimum incomes or “citizen’s dividends” as one remedy to cushion the impact of a jobless future. So perhaps a percentage of profits that accrue to international robotics companies could be redistributed to support local, primarily low-skilled laborers who are rendered unemployed by the introduction of robotics solutions and related services. Wishful thinking?

Regardless of which policy solutions end up being implemented and what for-profit companies decide to do, what is certain the extended time it will until political institutions decide which to pursue, how and when. In the meatime, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may drive the greatest “digital divide” yet between the have’s and have nots. To be sure, the commercial and consumer robotics industry is expected to become a much bigger multi-billion industry in coming years. But the growing “robotics divide” means that those who profit from this revolution are unlikely to be local companies in developing countries. The largest manufacturers of aerial robotics companies, for example, are Chinese, European and American. The same is largely true of robotics service companies.


But developing countries can still participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution by catching up on the service side. That is, demand for robotics-as-a-service is expected to skyrocket in both developing and emerging economies. We thus need to transfer the necessary skills and relevant robotics technologies to hard-working local partners and support their efforts to incubate local start-ups that offer a range of robotics services. These local start-ups will have important comparative advantages over Western companies seeking to provide similar services. They’ll already be on-site with the technology; they’ll know the language and understand the local market better. They’ll have a better grasp of context-specific use-cases and hence local business intelligence. What’s more, they’ll be able to offer more rapid services at more competitive prices than competing companies based in the West.

This is one of the main motivations behind Flying Labs. We want to actively reduce the inequality caused by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Our plan is to build a global network of Flying Labs and thereby create a local, highly-skilled technology workforce that can take advantage of the rising demand in robotics services. Members of our Flying Labs will first apply their skills and robotics technologies to support humanitarian, development and environmental efforts. As they gain experience, expertise and visibility in the social good sector, they will market their services to other sectors and industries that exhibit growing signs of demand inside their countries. Given that the Flying Labs will already be local, they would also have a first-mover advantage in catering to local demand.

In sum, we hope that Flying Labs will create local tech jobs that reduce the “robotics divide” by spinning off successful robotics service companies. These local start-ups could provide guaranteed minimum incomes (“citizen dividends”) and new training opportunities for those low-skilled workers displaced by the new robotics solutions. A local start-up incubated by a local social innovation lab focused on building local capacity building and social good may embrace this social responsibility more readily than an international company from Silicon Valley with no cultural or historical ties to the country in question.

I’d be grateful for feedback on the above arguments and assumptions. Is the logic sound? What am I overlooking? Am I wrong? What else should I be considering?

Ranking Aerial Imagery for Disaster Damage Assessments

Analyzing satellite and aerial imagery to assess disaster damage is fraught with challenges. This is true for both digital humanitarians and professional imagery analysts alike. Why? Because distinguishing between infrastructure that is fully destroyed and partially damaged can be particularly challenging. Professional imagery analysts with years of experience have readily admitted that trained analysts regularly interpret the same sets of images differently. Consistency in the interpretation of satellite and aerial imagery is clearly no easy task. My colleague Joel Kaiser from Medair recently suggested another approach.

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Joel and I both serve on the “Core Team” of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators). It is in this context that we’ve been exploring ways to render aerial imagery more actionable for rapid disaster damage assessments and tactical decision making. To overcome some of the challenges around the consistent analysis of aerial imagery, Joel suggested we take a rank-order approach. His proposal is quite simple: display two geo-tagged aerial images side by side with the following question: “Which of the two images shows more disaster damage?” Each combination of images could be shown to multiple individuals. Images that are voted as depicting more damage would “graduate” to the next display stage and in turn be compared to each other, and so on and so forth along with those images voted as showing less damage.

In short, a dedicated algorithm would intelligently select the right combination of images to display side by side. The number and type of votes could be tabulated to compute reliability and confidence scores for the rankings. Each image would have a unique damage score which could potentially be used to identify thresholds for fully destroyed versus partially damaged versus largely intact infrastructure. Much of this could be done on MicroMappers or similar microtasking solutions. Such an approach would do away with the need for detailed imagery interpretation guides. As noted above, consistent analysis is difficult even when such guides are available. The rank-order approach could help quickly identify and map the most severely affected areas to prioritize tactical response efforts.  Note that this approach could be used with both crowd-sourced analysis and professional analysis. Note also that the GPS coordinates for each image would not be made publicly available for data privacy reasons.

Is this strategy worth pursuing? What are we missing? Joel and I would be keen to get some feedback. So please feel free to use the comments section below to share your thoughts or to send an email here.

Towards Persistent Humanitarian Robotics

Aerial robots (or UAVs) represent the first wave of robotics to impact the humanitarian space. Thus far, this first wave has largely been characterized by the application of relatively new technologies in one-off deployments. This needs to change. We must shift towards more persistent and autonomous solutions. This applies equally to the use of aerial robots for data collection as it does to the use of said robots for the transportation of payloads.

By “persistent” I mean UAV platforms that are far more durable and robust. It is all fine and well to fly a UAV a few dozen times in favorable weather. That’s elementary. It is far less trivial to develop UAVs that can successfully operate for thousands of flight hours in unfavorable weather conditions. By “autonomous” I mean UAV platforms that are pre-programmed and equipped with collision avoidance technology. This allows the platforms to operate autonomously with less need for human intervention. The real revolution around robotics in general is not robotics per se but rather robotics-powered-by-artificial-intelligence, which increasingly allows mobile robots to operate autonomously. In contrast, the manual operation of UAVs very much limits the value they can add to humanitarian efforts. What’s more, the leading cause of accidents in both manned and unmanned aviation is attributable to pilot error.

Humanitarian organizations exploring the use of aerial robotics should make sure to raise questions around persistent and autonomous solutions in their discussions with UAV partners. This second wave of robotics is at most a ripple at the moment, so it is important to manage expectations. But this next wave is also inevitable. So the sooner humanitarian organizations start addressing the importance of both persistent and autonomous solutions, the earlier we can scale the positive impact of aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics across a wide range of humanitarian efforts.

Introducing WeRobotics

WeRobotics accelerates the use of robotics to solve humanitarian challenges. More specifically, we accelerate the ethical, safe and effective use of robotics to address aid, development and environmental challenges. Robots, such as drones or UAVs, are already transforming multiple industries through rapid & dramatic gains in efficiency and productivity. The impact on the social good sector will be no different. We want to create a world in which every social good organization has access to robotics technologies to solve global and local challenges.

Robots are technologies that radically enhance the ability of people to sense and affect physical change. The state of the art in robotics is quickly shifting from manually controlled systems to increasingly intelligent autonomous systems. Aid, development & environmental organizations have yet to take full advantage of these new solutions. The field of robotics is evolving so quickly that the social good sector is largely unaware of the possibilities let alone how to translate this potential into meaningful impact. As a result, robotics solutions are often over-looked or worse: seen as a threat rather than a unique opportunity to accelerate social good. We turn this perceived threat into powerful new opportunities for both the technology and social good sectors.

Aerial robotics (or UAVs) represent the first wave of robotics to impact the social good sector by disrupting traditional modes of data collection and payload delivery. In fact, aerial robotics is the current leading edge of humanitarian robotics applications. UAVs stand to offer cost-saving, time-saving and even life-saving solutions by enabling novel ways to collect data and transport payloads. Both timely data and the capacity to act on this data are integral to aid, development and environmental projects. Aerial robotics can thus fulfill two key roles: data collection and payload delivery. Indeed, we’ve already witnessed this use of aerial robotics for social good in dozens countries in recent years including Albania, Bosnia, China, Guyana, Haiti, Japan, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand and Vanuatu.

The rapid commercialization of consumer UAVs explains why aerial robots are the first—but certainly not the last—wave of intelligent robots to impact the social good space. The second and third waves are already in plain sight: industry and academia are making tremendous strides in both terrestrial and maritime robotics. Like aerial robots, terrestrial and maritime robots will significantly extend people’s ability to collect data and transport payloads. WeRobotics thus seeks to fast-track the social good sector’s access to aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics to expand the impact of aid, development and environmental projects.

The combined impact of increasingly autonomous systems on the social good sector will bring massive change. This will need to be managed carefully. WeRobotics offers dedicated platforms to channel this rapid change ethically, safely and effectively. Cities are the main drivers of innovation, social change, population growth and risk. To this end, WeRobotics is co-creating a global network of city-level labs in countries experiencing cascading risks, rapid development and/or environmental challenges. These localized platforms—our Flying Labs—are co-created with local and international partners to seed the social good sector with direct access to aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics. The first phase will prioritize the deployment of aerial robotics, hence the name Flying Labs. Once terrestrial and maritime robotics become integrated into the Labs, these will become WeRobotics Labs.

Our Lab partners will include industry, academia and social good organizations as evidenced by our recent co-creation of Kathmandu Flying Labs in Nepal. Other local partners in Africa, Asia and South America have recently approached us to explore the possibility of co-creating Flying Labs in their cities as well. Each Lab will focus on sector-based applications of robotics that are directly relevant to the local area’s needs, interests and opportunities. As such, one Lab might lead with the deployment of aerial robotics for data collection in environmental projects while another might prioritize maritime robotics for payload delivery in development projects. A third might focus on autonomous terrestrial robotics for sensing and payload delivery in aid projects. In short, our co-created Labs are launchpads where robotics solutions can be deployed ethically, safely and effectively within each social good sector.

WeRobotics will manage the core activities of the Labs through our dedicated sector-based programs—AidRobotics, DevRobotics and EcoRobotics. These programs will partner with aid, development and environmental organizations respectively and with technology partners to carry out joint activities in each Lab. As such, each program is responsible for catalyzing and managing its own sector’s strategic partnerships, hands-on trainings, operational projects, applied research and key events within each of the Labs. Future programs might include HealthRobotics, AgriRobotics and RightsRobotics.

Once a Lab is fully trained in one type of robotics technology, such as aerial robotics, local Lab partners carry out future aerial robotics projects themselves. Meanwhile, WeRobotics works on introducing other relevant robotics solutions to the Labs—such as terrestrial and maritime robotics—in close collaboration with other technology partners. WeRobotics also ensures that learning and innovations generated in each Lab are disseminated to all labs in order to accelerate cross-pollination around uses cases and new robotics solutions.

WeRobotics is the missing link between robotics companies, academia and social good organizations. We want to catalyze strategic, cross-sectoral partnerships by creating a common purpose, platform and opportunity for these diverse partners to collaborate on meaningful social good projects. WeRobotics is currently a joint exploration between four accomplished professionals. We bring together decades of experience in the humanitarian sector, robotics industry and the private sector. Feedback and/or questions are welcomed via email.

Video: Crisis Mapping Nepal with Aerial Robotics


I had the honor of spearheading this disaster recovery UAV mission in Nepal a few weeks ago as part of Kathmandu Flying Labs. I’ve been working on this new initiative (in my own time) with Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), Kathmandu University (KU), DJI and Pix4D. This Flying Lab is the first of several local UAV innovation labs that I am setting up (in my personal capacity and during my holiday time) with friends and colleagues in disaster-prone countries around the world. The short film documentary above was launched just minutes ago by DJI and describes how we teamed up with local partners in Kathmandu to make use of aerial robotics (UAVs) to map Nepal’s recovery efforts.

Here are some of the 3D results, courtesy of Pix4D (click to enlarge):


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Why work in 3D? Because disaster damage is a 3D phenomenon. This newfound ability to work in 3D has important implications for Digital Humanitarians. To be sure, the analysis of these 3D models could potentially be crowdsourced and eventually analyzed entirely within a Virtual Reality environment.

Since most of our local partners in Nepal don’t have easy access to computers or VR headsets, I found another way to unlock and liberate this digital data by printing our high-resolution maps on large, rollable banners.



We brought these banner maps back to the local community and invited them to hack the map. How? Directly, by physically adding their local knowledge to the map; knowledge about the location of debris, temporary shelters, drinking water and lots more. We brought tape and color-coded paper with us to code this knowledge so that the community could annotate the map themselves.


In other words, we crowdsourced a crisis map of Panga, which was highly participatory. The result was a rich, contextual social layer on top of the base map, which further inform community discussions on strategies and priorities guiding their recovery efforts. For the first time ever, the community of Panga was working off the one and same dataset to inform their rebuilding. In short, our humanitarian mission combined aerial robotics, computer vision, water-proof banners, local knowledge, tape, paper and crowdsourcing to engage local communities on the reconstruction process.


I’m now spending my evenings & weekends working with friends and colleagues to plan a follow-up mission in early 2016. We’ll be returning to Kathmandu Flying Labs with new technology partners to train our local partners on how to use fixed-wing UAVs for large scale mapping efforts. In the meantime, we’re also exploring the possibility of co-creating Jakarta Flying Labs, Monrovia Flying Labs and Santiago Flying Labs in 2016.

I’m quitting my day job next week to devote myself full time to these efforts. Fact is, I’ve been using all of my free time (meaning evenings, weekends and many, many weeks of holiday time) to pursue my passion in aid robotics and to carry out volunteer-based UAV missions like the one in Nepal. I’ve also used holiday time (and my own savings) to travel across the globe to present this volunteer-work at high-profile events, such as the 2015 Web Summit here in Dublin where the DJI film documentary was just publicly launched.


My Nepali friends & I need your help to make sure that Kathmandu Flying Labs take-off and become a thriving and sustainable center of social entrepreneur-ship. To this end, we’re actively looking for both partners and sponsors to make all this happen, so please do get in touch if you share our vision. And if you’d like to learn more about how UAVs other emerging technologies are changing the face of humanitarian action, then check out my new book Digital Humanitarians.

In the meantime, big, big thanks to our Nepali partners and technology partners for making our good work in Kathmandu possible!