Drones and the Coronavirus: Do these applications make any sense?

Want to use drones in response to COVID-19? Then read this previous post to inform your decision-making. I also published this follow-up post to suggest that drones may add more value later in adjacent crises. I wrote these posts to encourage more critical thinking around the use of drones in response to the pandemic. I don’t have all the answers, of course, but we do have questions on some of the applications that several drone companies and other organizations are promoting. The figure below from Drone Industry Insights (DRONEII) does a great job collating what we’ve come across in recent weeks.

The applications proposed under “Delivering Essential Goods and Services” on the right-hand side are already mature applications that existed years before the pandemic. The applications under “Battling the Spread of the Virus” are somewhat more novel. We thus welcome input on those specific applications. We’d be especially grateful for any additional evidence there may be to evaluate the effectiveness of these applications better.

Spraying

It appears there is little to no evidence that outdoor spraying of disinfectants or other substances (by hand or by drone) has any impact on reducing the transmission of the novel coronavirus. On the contrary, this fumigation could create public health problems and add to environmental pollution. As The Lancet Journal on Infectious Diseases clearly noted on March 5, 2020, “air disinfection of cities and communities is not known to be effective for disease control and needs to be stopped. The widespread practice of spraying disinfectant and alcohol in the sky, on roads, vehicles, and personnel has no value; moreover, large quantities of alcohol and disinfectant are potentially harmful to humans and should be avoided.” While some have suggested that outdoor spraying may help reassure local communities that the government is in control and responding, could this potentially create a false sense of safety and thus dis-incentivize physical distancing? On the other hand, the emotional reassurance and peace of mind that the spraying gives can provide crucial psychological relief, which is key to resilience. Others have suggested that the spray can keep rodents away. But thus far, only one preliminary study has been carried out, which suggests that cats and ferrets are more susceptible to being infected by COVID-19 than dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks. We have not found any scientific studies thus far that assess the transmission of the novel coronavirus from ferrets or cats to human beings. Indoor spraying is a different question. It remains to be seen whether aerial or ground robots can be more effective at indoor spraying compared to more conventional means. Does the use of drones in this case save time? Does it save on costs? Is the technology readily available?

Temperature scanning

It is unclear how valid, reliable, or cost-effective the current technology is for very high-resolution remote scanning at a distance. For example, can relatively affordable sensors distinguish between a body temperature of 37.2C and 38.0C from 50 meters away, let alone 100 meters? The same may also be true for those proposals that aim to use drones for automated remote cough detection. In any event, not everyone displays these symptoms right away. And even if the technology does work superbly well, then what? For example, someone with a high fever and cough walks down an alleyway and is automatically spotted by a drone that detects fever and a cough. Now what? It’s rather easy to get away from a drone in an urban environment.

Audio broadcasting

We hear mixed results in the use of loudspeakers on drones to encourage physical distancing and staying home. In some of the video footage we’ve seen, it appears that those who hear these warnings from the sky don’t actually change their behaviors. Others take videos of the drones with their smartphones but otherwise go on as before. That being said, we hear from our colleagues at India Flying Labs that this application of drones has been relatively effective in certain parts of India, and that many police chiefs are actively asking for drones with loudspeakers to carry out their public awareness efforts. The messaging itself needs to be carefully crafted to maximize the potential for behavior change. Just repeating the same messages over and over, “stay home, keep your distance,” may not be very useful since many have already heard these same messages from other sources. First, the messaging should be used to offer an information service, i.e., to provide “news you can use” to local communities; to be an authoritative source of information. Second, the messaging itself must be crafted in such a way that it resonates at a hyper-local level, draw on specific local customs and local traditions, and/or have local celebrities do the messaging. Either way, crafting different messages for different age-groups and/or separate messages for men and women are good practice. Over in Tunisia, it is unclear whether this ground robot (equipped with a camera, thermal sensor, loudspeaker, and microphone) is very effective. Why not merely use a police car with similar sensors?

Cargo delivery

Using cargo drones to deliver essential medicines and to collect patient samples for COVID-19 testing is being widely promoted. Anyone who has been involved in setting up cargo drones operations knows that doing so can take a significant amount of time. Also, the local availability of reliable and affordable cargo drones, let alone trained cargo drone pilots, is likely to be limited. So the rapid deployment of new cargo drone projects in response to the pandemic is expected to face several significant constraints. That being said, for cargo drone projects that are currently (or recently) operational, these can be more easily ramped up or repurposed to support the pandemic response. Foreign drone companies with significant resources and experience may be able to set up new cargo drone services in new countries. Even then, however, if the relevant medicines to help treat COVID symptoms are not available, or if insufficient tests are available to test for the virus, then there’s no point flying any drones. That being said, there are of course other needs for medical deliveries. We hear from Panama Flying Labs that the lock-down there restricts movement based on the ID number on your national ID card. Everyone is assigned a specific window of time when they can leave their homes for essential reasons based on their ID numbers. This poses a major challenge to those suffering from chronic illnesses who need their medications refilled on a regular basis. So Panama Flying Labs has been asked to look into possible cargo drone solutions to address this problem. It remains to be seen whether doing so will be logistically feasible and whether using cargo drones will add value compared to traditional delivery methods.

Surveillance

Drones can enhance situational awareness. This explains why many have advocated for the use of drones to help enforce lock-downs, sanitary cordons, curfews, and border crossings. While this may be a relatively more effective use of drone technology in response to the pandemic, it does raise serious concerns about data privacy and data protection. These concerns are rarely addressed by those advocating for drone-based surveillance. At the same time, there are increasing concerns that many governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to impose harsher surveillance measures that may persist well beyond the end of the pandemic. We’ve also seen multiple photos of drone experts huddled together with police and other government officials to show them the live feed from their drones overhead. This does not qualify as physical distancing.


To be clear, we are not public health experts ourselves (although several leaders of Flying Labs are medical doctors). The evidence that exists on the value-added of some of the above applications is particularly thin, which means that further evidence may well make these applications far more compelling. It should also be noted that when governments and local authorities instruct local drone experts to spray disinfectants to contain COVID-19, for example, these local experts may have no choice. This may also be true for some of the other applications listed above. That being said, at the very least, it is our collective responsibility to inform these authorities about the expected added value of some of these applications.

What is important is that we keep learning at a rapid pace and take in all new forms of evidence to review the uses of drones in response to the pandemic. This doesn’t mean that drones cannot play a decisive role in supporting the response to COVID-19; it simply means that more critical thinking is necessary before launching yet another drone project to tackle the pandemic. While drones may not add as much value as we’d like in the current phase of the global health emergency, this may change soon. Either way, we’ll be sure to continue working with and learning from Flying Labs to document what works and what doesn’t work to the best of our abilities. In the meantime, we’re fans of what Nepal Flying Labs is doing in response to the pandemic. Given the drastic reduction in air traffic around the capital city, the municipalities in Kathmandu Valley finally have a chance to secure flight permissions from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority, so that Nepal Flying Labs and partners can use their drones to create high-resolution maps of the vast area (pictured above). These very detailed maps have long been needed to inform urban planning projects led by the municipalities.

WeRobotics for Humans in a Hurry

We need to be better at communicating what WeRobotics is (and isn’t) to fellow humans. We can’t expect everyone to have the time to read through most of these blog posts and somehow immediately understand the big picture. We are keen to share more about our community, culture, and methodology. The FAQ below is a way to share more about our work. We are learning as we build. Feel free to share this post with anyone who might benefit from more clarity. It’s a quick 3 minute read. 

Is WeRobotics a for-profit company?

WeRobotics is a registered not-for-profit in the US and a tax-exempt organization in Switzerland.

Are Flying Labs for-profit companies?

Flying Labs are coordinated by local not-for-profit organizations and/or local companies. 

What is the difference between Flying Labs and WeRobotics Labs?

There are no such things as WeRobotics Labs.

Flying Labs are independently organized centers of expertise that are coordinated by local experts pin the Global South. Calling them WeRobotics Labs instead of Flying Labs might suggest they are staffed and managed by WeRobotics and belong to WeRobotics. Flying Labs are not staffed or managed by WeRobotics and are not owned by WeRobotics. Furthermore, calling them WeRobotics Labs would be disrespectful as doing so would take attention away from local experts who run their Flying Labs. Calling them WeRobotics Labs would directly undermine everyone’s efforts. 

Is FlyingLabs.org its own legal entity?

We’re using WeRobotics to co-create an independent international organization deeply rooted in the Global South and run entirely by leaders from the Global South. This has been our goal from the very start. As a first step, we are co-creating a network of country-level Flying Labs across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The second step is to secure systems change funding to co-create FlyingLabs.org as its own legal entity with its own leadership selected from and by country-level Flying Labs. We have already developed a concrete, 5-year plan and budget to launch FlyingLabs.org as its own independent entity.

What happens to WeRobotics after FlyingLabs.org becomes its own organization?

FlyingLabs.org may want to hire WeRobotics for certain projects or roles as needed. In addition, WeRobotics will offer new consulting services such as enabling other organizations to adopt the “Flying Labs Formula” at scale. Consulting projects represent around 30% of our revenue today. We will continue to grow this revenue stream to 80% of total revenue by the time FlyingLabs.org becomes its own legal entity. The remaining 20% will be grant funding to cover core.

What do you mean by “decolonizing technology for good”?

In this recent blog post, we talk about “the colonization of the public sphere through the use of instrumental technical rationality. In this sphere, complex social problems are reduced to technical questions, effectively removing the plurality of contending perspectives.” By advocating for the “decolonization of technology for good” we advocate against the reduction of complex social problems into technical problems. Equally importantly, we advocate for restoring the plurality of contending perspectives. In our case, this means strongly advocating for the Power of Local.

Decolonization is a rather loaded word.

Is that question or comment? Just kidding. Yes, decolonization is a loaded term. We discussed this at length with Flying Labs during last year’s retreat. We use the word decolonization selectively to call more attention to power dynamics, especially (but not exclusively) in the “Technology for Good” space. This may come as a surprise to some since WeRobotics co-founders are from the Global North. Thing is, we feel strongly that those with privilege have a particular responsibility to listen and call out these power dynamics where they can. This is about solidarity, which is one of our core values along with inclusion, diversity, autonomy, humanity, humility and sharing. 

Are Flying Labs independent?

Yes: We are an open network with a federated model. Hierarchy is not part of our formal culture. We co-create in an open way. As such, Flying Labs conduct their own affairs and make their own decisions. They select their own projects and partners. They run their own meetings and their own finances. They develop their own value propositions, governance models, business models and services. They write their own blog posts and many are also engaged on multiple social media platforms. WeRobotics does not have password access to any of these platforms. It should be noted that 90% of blog posts hosted on the Flying Labs blog and WeRobotics blog are about Flying Labs and published by Flying Labs. In addition, 95% of all photos and videos in these blog posts are of Flying Labs, not WeRobotics. We work hard to amplify the voices of local experts across the Flying Labs network. Furthermore, Labs do their own media interviews and also decide which conferences and workshops they want to organize or speak at.*

No: Flying Labs must follow local, national and international laws. This includes relevant aviation regulations and our Child Protection Policy, for example. In addition, Flying Labs must follow this Code of Conduct and these Flying Labs Guidelines (PDF). 

*When WeRobotics receives an invitation to speak at a conference, we transfer the invitation to Flying Labs whenever possible. This has given Flying Labs the opportunity to give presentations and keynotes in Malaysia, Japan, Dubai, Australia, Jamaica and Kenya, for example. We do the same when receiving requests for media interviews. Helping to amplify the voices of local experts is important to us.

Does WeRobotics own the data (and metadata) collected by Flying Labs?

No, Flying Labs and/or their clients own the data and metadata collected by Flying Labs. WeRobotics does not own or monetize the data or metadata collected by Flying Labs. 

Do Flying Labs pay fees to WeRobotics?

Yes, Flying Labs make annual contributions to the Flying Labs Fund. These mandatory contributions range from USD 250 to $750 depending on the type of organization that coordinates any given Flying Labs. Note that 100% of the annual contributions go directly to the Flying Labs Fund and that 100% of the Flying Labs Fund goes right back to the Flying Labs in the form of micro-grants, subsidized travel, free software, free training, retreats and more. WeRobotics does not take commissions.

Is the Flying Labs model based on a franchise model?

We frequently describe the Affiliate Flying Labs Program as being based on a franchise model. But this is simply a means to express affiliation. There’s no ownership in our case, so we ought to use a different word to describe the Affiliate Program. “Cooperative model” may be more accurate.

Is WeRobotics perfect?

LOL.

Technology for Good is Broken. Here’s How We’re Trying to Fix It.

In Toward a Rational Society (1970), the philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes “the colonization of the public sphere through the use of instrumental technical rationality. In this sphere, complex social problems are reduced to technical questions, effectively removing the plurality of contending perspectives.” This explains why today’s social problems are “addressed only in aspects that are susceptible to technical solutions” (Heijmans 2004). Yet the problems we’re facing are never just technical problems, which means that the solutions to these problems cannot be technical ones alone. Solutions must be social, inclusive, plural, and diverse.

This begs the question: why name our organization WeRobotics? For better and worse, referencing an emerging technology in the name of an organization creates more visibility.

It’s safe to say that our work with Flying Labs has garnered more attention about inequality through technology than it might have if we were an organization about inequality alone (c.f. Adebe et al. 2020). As Adebe and team rightly note, technology can “offer us a tractable focus through which to notice anew and bring renewed attention to old problems.” While the core focus of our work is very much on the broader problems of inequality, injustice, racism, discrimination, and the digital divide, framing these problems in part as a technology problem can help leverage resources and attention that might not accrue otherwise (Adebe et al. 2020).

But this is a double-edged sword. “The significant risk, of course, is that a focus on the technological aspects of a problem can restrict our attention to merely those aspects. A computing [or technology] lens can have the effect of masking and pulling political capital away from other and more insidious facets of a problem, as well as other (non-technical) means of addressing it” (Adebe et al. 2020). So for the “Technology for Good” sector, what happens when we fail to recognize this risk?

The “Technology for Good” sector is broken because technology alone is not the solution. The sector ought to be rebranded as “Not the Solution for Good” since it mostly fails to address deeper patterns of injustice and inequality.

The “Technology for Good” sector is broken because technology alone is not the solution. The sector ought to be rebranded as “Not the Solution for Good” since it mostly fails to address deeper patterns of injustice and inequality. Whenever you read the claim “X for Good” (where X = some technology), for example, you should immediately question the claim by asking:

  • Who is using that X;
  • Who defines what “good” is;
  • Who benefits from the use of X; and
  • Where is this X being used?

In our case, the ‘where’ is the Global South, yet the ‘who’ is almost always the same: technologists from the Global North.

Tech4Good

If Habermas were still writing today, he might refer to these technologists as “unwilling colonizers.” Why unwilling? Because technologists in the Global North are part of a broken political, economic, and social system that colonizes the public sphere through the use of technical rationality. Many of them are as much a product of this system as they are a victim of said system. Many recognize full well that the system is broken, which explains why they “love to see all the discourse around ethics in tech.” But at the same time, they note that “calling out tech workers who are just trying to earn an income and raise their kids for not caring enough about ethics leaves a bad taste in [their] mouth.” These self-aware technologists from the Global North must be included in the collective effort to fix the “Technology for Good” sector.

This, too, though, poses a risk as most technologists from the Global North are often not self-aware and thus look at problems in the Global South through the lens of technology alone. In doing so, they inevitably silence the plurality of perspectives. This paternalistic approach explains why “technology for good” projects in the Global South are often ineffective, unsustainable, and, at times, even harmful. To this end, and to paraphrase Adebe and team, a synecdochal focus on technology must walk a pragmatic—and tenuous—line between overemphasis on technical aspects, on the one hand, and due recognition of the work technology does to reinforce social systems, on the other.

Luckily, we do not have to walk this fine line alone.

Flying Labs in 25+ countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America are kindly guiding us and each other along the way. They have local expertise and local knowledge. They understand local contexts and local needs. They are the plurality of perspectives needed to decolonize the public sphere and bring about systems change. They know that inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunity are not synonyms for justice or equality. These values must be complemented with actual structural transformation; for without such transformation, these values will bring those who were previously excluded into a new but equally broken system.

We need to decolonize the public sphere by changing the narrative and enabling meaningful structural change driven by local leadership.

This explains why we need to co-create a governance model which, when adopted at scale, will drive the systems change required to fix the social good sector. In sum, we need to decolonize the public sphere by changing the narrative and enabling meaningful structural change driven by local leadership. In this decolonized sphere, complex social problems are complex and tackled as such. Included in this sphere is the plurality of solutions necessary to address social issues effectively and sustainably.

Decolonizing Medical Cargo Drone Technology: Step 1

We’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Pfizer on an exciting project over the past 12 months. The project focused on using affordable, locally repairable, and locally owned cargo drones for the delivery of essential medicines to remote health facilities in the Dominican Republic. Local communities in the remote mountains of the Dominican Republic do not have regular access to healthcare services. This is not due to the lack of paved roads connecting their villages and local clinics to regional hospitals. Instead, it is the cost of local transportation that serves as the most significant impediment. This is particularly problematic when local clinics run out of medicines, or when they cannot test patient samples locally. When this happens, patients have to travel to the hospital in person. If the patient can afford the cost of local transportation, then getting to the hospital often requires a full day of travel due to the limited number of local transportation options. Taking a full day away from paid work and/or from supporting family is often not an option.

What’s more, some patients are too frail to travel on the back of motorbikes on bumpy and windy roads. This explains why some nurses at remote clinics have had to make the journey to the local hospital themselves when patient samples need to be dropped off and/or medicines picked up.

The final report on this project, which is available here (PDF), runs some 70+ pages long and represents the most detailed and most transparent publicly available report on cargo drones to date.

Pfizer partnered with WeRobotics and Dominican Republic Flying Labs to carry out autonomous cargo drone deliveries over six weeks in 2019. Dominican Republic Flying Labs is one of 25+ Flying Labs in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Flying Labs are local knowledge hubs run entirely by local experts who are trained, equipped, and supported by WeRobotics as needed. Since 2016, WeRobotics and Flying Labs have set up multiple cargo drone projects in PeruFijiPapua New GuineaBrazil, and Nepal with reliable public health partners. WeRobotics also worked with VillageReach to set up a cargo drone project in the DRC and partnered with DR Flying Labs on earlier cargo drone projects in the Caribbean.

To learn from this direct, hands-on experience in cargo drones along with lessons learned from the broader cargo drone community, please see this peer-reviewed online training on medical cargo drones.

The purpose of the joint Pfizer-WeRobotics cargo drone project with DR Flying Labs was to test the following hypothesis: can affordable and locally-repairable cargo drones be operated locally and ideally by health care professionals to reliably and autonomously deliver medicines on demand—much like any other medical instrument that is easy enough to use? As noted by the Ministry of Health Director for the El Valle Region, “This project is important in rural areas. With this project, people would have access to pharmaceuticals, lab tests, and other data in an expedited way because of the drone. This is an opportunity to extend to our people service at the right time at the right quality, warmth, and quickly as well.”

DR Flying Labs drone pilots, who were all trained on this affordable cargo drone solution by WeRobotics, carried out six weeks of consecutive deliveries in the province of San Juan de la Maguana between June and July 2019. A total of 101 autonomous flights were carried out to two separate health facilities, traveling a total of 994 kilometers. Of the 51 outbound flights, 40 carried medicines totaling 21.25 kilos. The drone had to gain an altitude of 784 meters above ground level. None of the risks identified at the outset of the project materialized thanks to active risk management and mitigation strategy developed by WeRobotics and DR Flying Labs. While there were several aborted deliveries due to weather, none of the 101 flights carried out over six weeks resulted in a crash or any material damage. Nepal Flying Labs has since carried out several hundred deliveries with the same cargo drone model for almost six months now. Philippines Flying Labs plans to use the same cargo drone model in early 2020.

The final report, which is available here (PDF), runs some 70+ pages long and represents the most detailed and most transparent publicly available report on cargo drones to date. The comprehensive report documents the full operations, technical solutions, and numerous lessons learned. It also presents concrete policy recommendations and presents a conceptual framework for complementary drone delivery models: the state model and the community model. We are becoming increasingly concerned that drone companies have to follow the “state model” to make a profit, i.e., they need to focus on high-frequency deliveries to areas with relatively large populations. In other words, their business models are not viable for the “community model” since smaller and more dispersed communities don’t require high-frequency deliveries. As such, we’re concerned that these smaller communities like those in the Dominican Republic are being overlooked even though they typically face the greatest health risks.

The state and community models are necessarily complementary, however, and should be combined into one holistic approach. This can be compared to “highways” versus “country roads,” for example. Leading drone companies are busy building “national highways” with their state-based delivery model, while others like WeRobotics are more interested in developing the “back roads” to serve the community model. Combining both models can provide the speed and geographical coverage necessary to ensure equal access, a duty of care, patient impact, cost-savings, resource optimization, and to improve healthcare outcomes at a truly national scale without discriminating against smaller and more dispersed populations. The business models for the state and community models have to be different. This project with Pfizer in the DR represents one step forward in developing and testing the business model for the community delivery model.

In sum, WeRobotics recommends that more operational data be generated to validate the community model and the corresponding business model fully. WeRobotics also recommends testing the use of both the state and community models in one country to evaluate overall impact since the implications of drone delivery should not be focused narrowly on specific technical models but broadly on the transformation of health care logistics. This requires a commitment of time, attention, and resources to see through.

As such, the economic data alone while a requisite is only one piece of the larger puzzle. The analysis must be more comprehensive and extended to include performance improvements, access, equity, patient outcomes, and of course, the transformation of health care logistics. The best way to get to that larger puzzle is by unpacking what is contained within the cost-benefit discussion. Are we sure we are accounting properly for costs? What are the associated costs of locally sustaining such systems? How will we determine those costs if markets are only minimally functional in this space? And more importantly, the benefits have to be understood broadly, systematically, and comparatively. What is the value of improved speed in critical logistics? How do we make sure that improved health outcomes are both understood in these projects and adequately accounted for in our understanding of financial benefit?

The goal isn’t to test these models for their own sake, but as a way to build a market. And for this, more data and learning is required.


Acknowledgments:

We sincerely thank Pfizer, Dominican Republic Flying Labs, Centro de Innovación de Drones, Cyberpark of Santo Domingo, Ministry of Health, Aviation Authority (IDAC) as well as regional and local doctors and local communities in San Juan, El Coco and Montacitos for their partnership, leadership, and invaluable support. Sincerest thanks in particular to Jose Antonio Martinez, Jim Mangione, Orlando Perez, and Leonor Cocco for their partnership and support for the field tests. We would also like to thank Susie Truog from VillageReach for sharing her independent cost-benefit analysis for cargo deliveries in San Juan Province. Big thanks as well to all the participants, students, and volunteers who participated in the training and field tests.

Back to the Future: Drones in Humanitarian Action

A devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25th, 2015. The humanitarian drone response to the earthquake was almost entirely foreign-led, top-down and techno-centric. International drone teams self-deployed and largely ignored the humanitarian drone code of conduct. Many had never heard of humanitarian principles and most had no prior experience in disaster response. Some were arrested by local authorities. At best, these foreign drone teams had little to no impact. At worse, they violated the principle of Do No Harm. Nepal Flying Labs was co-created five months after the earthquake, on September 25th, 2015, to localize the responsible and effective use of drones for positive social impact. Today, Flying Labs are operational in 25 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This month, on behalf of the World Food Program (WFP), WeRobotics teamed up with Nepal Flying Labs and WFP Nepal to run a 5-day hands-on training and disaster simulation to improve the rapid deployment and coordination of drones in humanitarian action. WeRobotics previously designed and ran similar humanitarian drone trainings and simulations on behalf of WFP (and others) in the Dominican Republic, Peru, Myanmar, Malawi and Mozambique, for example. In fact, WeRobotics has been running humanitarian drone trainings since 2015 both in-person and online.

All 25 Flying Labs typically run their trainings in local languages. As such, the 5-day training in Nepal was largely led by Nepal Flying Labs and run in Nepali. Over 40 participants from 16 Nepali organizations took the training, which included an introduction to drone technologies,  drone photogrammetry, imagery processing, lessons learned and best practices from past humanitarian drone missions, and overviews of codes of conduct, data protection protocols and coordination mechanisms, all drawn from direct operational experience. The training also comprised a series of excellent talks given by Nepali experts who are already engaged in the use of drones in disaster management and other sectors in Nepal. This featured important talks by several officials from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN). In addition, the training included a co-creation session using design thinking methods during which local experts identified the most promising humanitarian applications of drone technology in Nepal.

Nepal Flying Labs also trained participants on how to fly drones and program drone flights. The drones were rented locally from the Flying Labs and their partners. This hands-on session, kindly hosted by Kathmandu University, was followed by another hands-on session on how to process and analyze aerial imagery. In this session, Nepal Flying Labs introduced participants to Pix4Dreact and Picterra. Pix4Dreact provides an ultra-rapid solution to data processing, allowing humanitarian drone teams to process 1,000 high-resolution aerial images in literally minutes, which is invaluable as this used to take hours. Picterra enables drone teams to quickly analyze aerial imagery by automatically identifying features of interest to disaster responders such as damaged buildings, for example. While Picterra uses deep learning and transfer learning to automate feature detection, users don’t need any background or prior experience in artificial intelligence to make full use of the platform. During the hands on-session, trainers used Picterra to automatically detect buildings in aerial (orthophoto) map of an earthquake-affected area.

After completing a full day of hands-on training, Nepal Flying Labs gave a briefing on the disaster simulation scheduled for the following day. The simulation is the centerpiece of the humanitarian drone trainings run by WeRobotics and Flying Labs. It requires participants to put into practice everything they’ve learned in the training. The simulation consolidates their learning and provides them with important insights on how to streamline their coordination efforts. It is often said that disaster responders train the way they respond and respond they way they train. This is why simulations are absolutely essential.

The simulation was held at Bhumlu Rural Municipality, a 3+ hour drive from Kathmandu. Bhumlu is highly prone to flooding and landslides, which is why it was selected for the simulation and why the Government of Nepal was particularly keen to get high-resolution maps of the area. The disaster simulation was run by Nepal Flying Labs in Nepali. The simulation, first designed by WeRobotics in 2015, consists of three teams (Authorities, Pilots and Analysts) who must work together to identify and physically retrieve colored markers as quickly and safely as possible. The markers, which were placed across Bhumlu prior to participants’ arrival, are typically 1 meter by 1 meter in size, and each color represents an indicator of interest to humanitarians, e.g., Yellow = survivor; Blue = landslide; and Red = disaster damage. Both the colors and the number of different markers are customized based on the local priorities. Below, Nepal Flying Labs Coordinator Uttam Pudasaini hides a yellow marker under a tree prior to the arrival of participants.

Myanmar has held the record for the fastest completion of the simulation since 2017. As such, they’ve held the number one spot and been the gold standard for two years now. The teams in Myanmar, who were trained by WeRobotics, retrieved all markers in just over 4 hours. As such, WeRobotics challenged the teams in Nepal to beat that record and take over the number one spot. They duly obliged and retrieved all markers in a very impressive time of 3 hours and 4 minutes, clenching the number one spot from Myanmar.

On the following and final day of the workshop, Nepal Flying Labs and WeRobotics facilitated an all-hands session to debrief on the simulation, inviting each team and trainee to reflect on lessons learned and share their insights. For example, a feedback loop between the Pilots and Analysis Teams is important so pilots can plan further flights based on the maps produced by the analysts. Like a number of previous simulations run by WeRobotics, the Analysis Team noted that having a portal printer on hand would be ideal. The Pilots Team also suggested that having different colored visibility vests would’ve enabled more rapid field coordination between and within teams by enabling individuals to more quickly identify who is who.

When asked which individuals or group had the most challenging job in the simulation, the consensus was the retrieval group who are part of the Authorities Team and responsible for retrieving the markers after they’ve been geo-located by the Analysis Team. This was particularly interesting given that in all previous simulations run by WeRobotics, the consensus had always been that the Analysis Team had the hardest task. In coming weeks, these insights together with the many others gained from the simulation in Nepal will be added to this document on best practices in humanitarian drone missions.

After the full simulation debrief, Nepal Flying Labs facilitated the final session of the training: a panel discussion on the development of drone regulations to save lives and reduce suffering in Nepal. The panelists included senior officials from Civil Aviation, Home Ministry and Nepal Police. The session was run in Nepali and presented participants with an excellent opportunity to engage with and inform key policymakers. In preparation for this session, Nepal Flying Labs and partners prepared this 3-page policy document (PDF) with priority questions and recommendations, which served as the basis for the Q&A with the panel. This discussion and policy document created a roadmap for next steps which Nepal Flying Labs and partners have pledged to take forward with all stakeholders.


Acknowledgements: WeRobotics and Nepal Flying Labs would like to sincerely thank WFP HQ and WPF Nepal for the kind invitation to run this training and for providing the superb coordination and logistics that made this training so fruitful. WeRobotics and Nepal Flying Labs would also like to express sincere thanks to DroNepal for co-leading the training with Nepal Flying Labs. Sincere thanks to the local communities we worked with during the simulation and to the CAA and local police for granting flight permissions. To all 40+ participants, sincerest thanks for all the energy you brought to the training and for your high levels of engagement throughout each of the 5 days, which significantly enriched the training. Last but certainly not least, sincere thanks to the Belgium Government for funding this training.

Testing Agile Cargo Drone Delivery to Improve Healthcare

Hard-to-reach communities need more than paved roads to access healthcare. They need both affordable and convenient transportation to and from local healthcare providers. If it costs too much to get to the clinic, then they’ll never get to the clinic. If it takes too much time to get to the clinic, then they’ll never get to the clinic. Why? Because their choices are limited. They may be too sick to spend hours traveling back and forth to a clinic. They may not have the option of taking time off work or cannot afford to forgo the income. Or they may have family responsibilities that limit how long they can be away from home.

Hard-to-reach communities need more than paved roads to access healthcare. They need affordable and convenient transportation to and from local healthcare providers.

Discussions around the last mile typically focus on the challenge of delivering medicines to local healthcare facilities rather than caring for the patient directly. So what would totally agile, peer-to-peer cargo drone delivery look like?

Cargo drones that deliver medical supplies always follow predetermined routes. They transport medicines from one fixed point to another—regional hospitals to remote clinics, for example. But what if Community Health Workers (CHWs) need additional medicines while visiting remote communities? They may not know exactly what they need ahead of time or they’re unable to carry a wide range of medicines with them across rough terrain. Worse, what if CHWs aren’t available and patients have difficulty getting to the clinic or to the pharmacy?

While discussions around the use of cargo drones for medical deliveries typically focus on “long range” deliveries (100km+), smaller cargo drones can also play an important role in literal last-mile deliveries, the last 1,600 meters.

To explore this further, we invited our new technology partner, Dronistics, to join us and Dominican Republic Flying Labs in the remote mountains of Montasitos. Using large, long-range drones to make one-mile deliveries isn’t a good use of resources. These drones typically need more space to land and require pre-approved fixed-routes. In contrast, because Dronistics is more of a flying ball than a traditional drone, therefore can be safely operated and can deliver directly to individuals within a one-mile radius. This approach could help Flying Labs democratize cargo drone deliveries, enabling remote communities to both send and receive deliveries.

This exploration in the Dominican Republic was the first time that Dronistics field tested their solution outside of Switzerland. They learned a lot from the experience and were very good about carefully documenting all of our feedback. Equally important, they were a great team player; very respectful of local partners and communities, humble, thoughtful and keen to learn. These human qualities are more important to us than any startup’s drone technology. As such, we’re already exploring further collaboration between Dronistics and several other Flying Labs around the world.

In the meantime, we sincerely thank the Municipality of Montasitos along with local communities for their time and their kind welcome. We also thank the Centro de Innovacion De Drones, Parque Cibernatico, Dronistics and Pfizer for their generous partnership and support on this project. We would also like to thank NCCR Robotics that supports Dronistics through an NCCR Robotics Spin Fund Grant.


To learn more about the use of cargo drones in public health, please see our dedicated online course on the topic. And explore previous cargo drone projects run by WeRobotics and Flying Labs. Note that the Dronistics flights in the DR were for demo and exploratory purposes only, no official deliveries were made.

Drone Charter on Equal Opportunity and Inclusion

In 2018, the number of Flying Labs expanded by more than 500 percent, driven entirely by local demand. As the Flying Labs continue to rapidly expand, we’ve surfaced a number of important insights about inclusion and equal opportunity. As more Labs join the network, we are collectively realizing that many face the exact same challenges, no matter where they are in the world or how different their countries might be. Today, local experts are running Flying Labs in 23 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. These experts include local entrepreneurs, local engineers and local change makers. They collaborate with each other on projects and trainings across borders, and share their own learnings with each other.

Screenshot 2019-06-06 11.26.44

When 12 of the Flying Labs braved the New York winter earlier this year to gather for the annual Flying Labs Retreat, we realized that the barriers they faced around inclusion and equal opportunity were systemic. So we discussed a range of complementary solutions with all 23 Flying Labs including the need for a Flying Labs Charter on Equal Opportunity, which we are publishing today (Google DocPDF).

The charter is signed by each of the 23 Flying Labs, who will actively disseminate the policy document to local, national, regional and international stakeholders in their countries. WeRobotics will do the same at the international level to ensure that international regulators and international organizations are aware of the interests and priorities of local experts, local entrepreneurs, local engineers and local change makers. These local actors rarely get a seat at the table or a voice. The purpose of this Charter is to change this and for local actors to stand united in their call for inclusion and equal opportunity in the use of drones and robotics for positive social change.

Please help them share this Charter far and wide.