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.

Building Cargo Drone Expertise in Papua New Guinea

WeRobotics was recently asked by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to organize a training on medical cargo drones in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The purpose of the training was to engage key stakeholders on the opportunities and challenges of using cargo drones in the wake of PNG’s most recent polio outbreak. An important component of the training was a hands-on demo of cargo drone deliveries. There were three key reasons for making this operational demo part of the training: 1) introduce stakeholders to cargo drone technology and standard operating procedures; 2) test how quickly a cargo drone team could be deployed; 3) test how quickly flight permissions could be secured from PNG’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). WeRobotics was given 10 weeks to implement the project. It was completed in 8 weeks.

WeRobotics partnered with two outstanding groups who ensured the project’s complete success: Soli Consultancy and Redwing Labs India. Soli Consultancy are the co-founders of PNG Flying Labs while Redwing Labs is a founding partner of India Flying Labs. Soli Consultancy has extensive experience in aviation regulations and took the lead on securing the flight permissions for the CDC project. They also took the lead on the logistics for the workshop. Redwing Labs is a cargo drone company from India that was recently selected Techstars USA, the biggest VC accelerator program in the world with an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Both Soli and Redwing went well above and beyond to ensure that the extremely tight timeline would be met. The CDC team in PNG lent invaluable support to both Soli and Redwing throughout the very busy 7 weeks leading up to the training and cargo drone flights.

Credit: National Department of Health

Around 40 stakeholders participated in the workshop, representing an important mix of expertise from public health, aviation, and private sectors. The workshop agenda is available here (PDF). The first session comprised talks from senior health officials from PNG, Mr. Berry Ropa and Dr. Mathias Bauri from the National Department of Health. Each speaker reported on the very real difficulties in reaching remote communities in PNG. They both noted that some communities can only be reached by helicopter (costing around USD 2,500 / hour). This was followed by an open discussion between participants reflecting on related challenges and potential ways that drones might be able to address or overcome some of these challenges.

I had the pleasure of leading Session 2. The purpose of this session was to give all participants a solid background in medical cargo drones including use-cases, technologies, deployments, ethical issues, lessons learned and best practices. This 1.5 hour presentation was followed by an open discussion by all stakeholders. The session included a demo of cargo drone boxes by my good colleague Dr. Timothy Amukele and the first public announcement of the launch of PNG Flying Labs, which was very warmly welcomed by local stakeholders. Following the presentation, an open question and answer session allowed participants to move the conversations forward vis-à-vis the PNG context.

Session three was a design-thinking session with a total of 5 breakout groups. Each group was asked to identify specific health projects that they believed could benefit from the use of drones. This meant identify the key health need, where geographically this need was greatest and which stakeholders would be best placed to implement the use of cargo drone deliveries in that context. Participants were then asked to select the one project they considered most compelling for immediate implementation. The results were particularly informative and some detailed enough to develop an initial concept note and proposal for.

In the fourth session, I provided an overview of business models, cost structures, sustainability strategies, and different methodologies to assess the cost-benefit of introducing cargo drone deliveries in a given context. This 45-minute presentation was followed by another open discussion during which participants connected the ideas presented to the PNG context. The fifth and final session was run by Redwing and served as an introduction to drone regulations, safety, standard operating procedures, fail-safe mechanisms and more.

The cargo drone demo day was scheduled for the day after the workshop at Pacific Adventist University. A backup day was set aside in case of rain. Sure enough, there where strong winds with heavy downpour that morning, so the demo day was rescheduled to the following day. Drones can certainly be made more weather proof, this is not a major technical challenge. The question has more to do with cost, since technical modifications and add-on’s necessarily require engineering resources. That said, as one local public health expert at the workshop noted, when there’s a heavy downpour like this in PNG, even 4WD cars will get stuck in muddy roads.

The original plan for the cargo drone demo was to fly from the university to Sogeri National High School through a remote mountainous terrain 17 kilometers away and with an elevation difference of some 1,000 feet. While Redwing complied with regulatory requirements for flight approvals, CASA did not approve flights Beyond Visual Line of Site (BVLOS). They informed us that an American cargo drone company had recently crashed their drone in PNG as part of a project with an international health organization. As such, CASA preferred that the Redwing flights all be conducted within Visual Line of Site, or VLOS. PNG Flying Labs and Soli Consultancy are now following-up with CASA to continue working towards an unmanned aircraft operator’s certificate.

Given that only VLOS flights were permitted, it was decided that the drone would take off from the university, fly large loops within visual line of sight and cover a distance of 17 kilometers in order to simulate the original flight plan displayed above. Vaccine vials were placed in the cargo box along with multiple icepacks and a temperature data logger. The cargo box was then fastened to the cargo drone. The total weight carried was around 680 grams. The temperature going in was around 1.5C.

The Redwing drone is a VTOL or hybrid drone, meaning that it takes off and lands vertically but then transitions to fly like plane. The advantage of hybrid drones is that they can take off and land in narrow places but still have the range of a fixed-wing drone when they transition to forward flight. The demonstration went flawlessly, with the drone covering 24 km in approximately 20 minutes. The cargo drone flew at an average speed of 75 km per hour and at an altitude of 120 meters. The temperature of the cargo was around 7.5C after landing even though there was very minimal insulation. While Redwing did both the takeoff and landings manually, they noted that both could be done autonomously as well regardless of the cargo weight.

Credit: Laurence Korup, Oceanian Multimedia

Sincerest thanks to the following organizations for their partnership and trust: CDC, Gates Foundation, Soli Consulting, Redwing Labs and CASA. We’re very pleased to have launched Papua New Guinea Flying Labs, which is part of the growing South Pacific Flying Labs network. PNG Flying Labs will be introduced more formally in coming weeks and we expect Vanuatu Flying Labs to join the South Pacific Network in the very near future.

WeRobotics is also exploring a number of other medical cargo drone projects in Nepal, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Uganda and the Dominican Republic. We’ll be sure to share our lessons learned and best practices for those projects that do move forward. So stay tuned for more updates throughout 2019. In the meantime, learn how South Pacific Flying Labs is using cargo drones to help reduce Dengue fever in Fiji, and how Peru Flying Labs and Dominican Republic Flying Labs are using cargo drones for other public health use cases. Also, be sure to sign up for our upcoming online course on Medical Cargo Drones in Public Health.

How Local Drone Pilots Are Reducing Dengue Fever

The dengue fever outbreak in Fiji in 2014 was one of the region’s largest known outbreaks of the mosquito-borne infection. Scientists studying the outbreak believe climate change was a contributing factor: more flooding results in more areas of standing water for longer periods—perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. According to the World Health Organization’s Regional Office, the islands of the South Pacific are “some of the most vulnerable places on the planet to health effects of climate change.” Unfortunately, existing tools to control these mosquitoes such as insecticide spraying are not efficient and have failed to eliminate dengue as a public health concern. Worldwide, an estimated 390 million human dengue infections occur every year. This explains why ministries of health in the South Pacific expect larger outbreaks. In fact, Fiji experienced another outbreak of dengue fever this year, which once again prompted urgent calls for more effective and preventative solutions.

One such solution may be the use of Wolbachia-treated mosquitos. Wolbachia is a naturally occurring bacteria that prevents mosquitos from transmitting diseases like Zika and dengue. This explains why our partners at the World Mosquito Program (WMP) and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services have been releasing Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos in Fiji. This is done be driving around a town or village with canisters of Wolbachia mosquitoes (W-mosquitoes for short). The driver pulls over by the side of the road every few minutes to release one canister at a time. Over time, Wolbachia becomes established in the local mosquito population. When most of the mosquito population have Wolbachia, local communities in Fiji should be at lower risk of getting dengue, Zika and chikungunya.

Releasing Wolbachia mosquitos “by car” presents a number of challenges, however. First, during the rainy and cyclone seasons, many roads become unusable while pools of standing water breed more mosquitos. What’s more, mosquitos that are released by car may not be uniformly distributed over an area but rather constrained by the local road network. As such, a significant amount of work and time has to go into planning the best routes for cars given these fixed constraints. Lastly, not everyone lives next to a road and so are potentially excluded from public health interventions.

Countries in the region experience severe flooding during Cyclone season

This explains why WMP teamed up with WeRobotics earlier this year. WeRobotics engineers have been busy developing an aerial release mechanism that can be attached to a drone. Combining both the aerial and ground-based release of W-mosquitos is expected to be a lot more effective. The aerial release mechanism can store up to 160,000 W-mosquitos at 5 degrees Celsius and release 200 mosquitos at a time every 50 meters. This is enough to cover an area of four square kilometers. Aerial releases are much faster than ground releases (no traffic, stop lights, pedestrians, etc.) and, unlike cars, drones don’t burn fossil fuels. A drone can cover an area of 10km2 in a couple hours while mosquito releases by car over the same area would require several days. In addition, the use of drones provides far more homogeneous releases and better coverage. Another bonus: drone routes are much easier to plan than car routes.

The mechanism is airborne and ready to release 200 W-mosquitos at a time

A fully operational prototype of the release mechanism is currently being piloted in the South Pacific after 5 months of local community engagement and awareness raising. WeRobotics engineers have already trained local drone pilots with South Pacific Flying Labs and Drone Services Fiji on how to operate the drone and the release mechanism safely and effectively. As such, the local team at Pacific Flying Labs is now taking the lead in piloting the drone and aerial releases as part WMP’s public health intervention in Fiji.

Building local capacity is central to the mission of WeRobotics as is creating local ownership of health, humanitarian, development and environmental projects. The localization of this expertise and technology through the global Flying Labs network leads to more sustainable and impactful projects.

An aerially-released mosquito finds their way to the arm of a WMP colleague

When the pilot project completes this week, South Pacific Flying Labs and partners will have released around half-a-million W-mosquitos. WMP has engaged the help of local community members to host a large network of mosquito traps across the release area to determine how widely, quickly and uniformly these mosquitos have dispersed compared to ground-released mosquitos. W-mosquitos can be distinguished from others because the former have each been dusted with yellow-colored dye. Once our friends at WMP complete their evaluation following of trial, we’ll be able to quantify the added value of complementing ground-based releases with aerial releases. Future trials will seek to optimize the release methods so that mosquito deployments can be achieved across larger areas.


South Pacific Flying Labs is funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The drone component of the mosquito project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge. Earlier this year, WeRobotics tested the use of drones for mosquito release in Brazil using a completely different prototype release mechanism.

 

How Drone Natives are Decolonizing Robotics

In 2015, Cyclone Pam devastated the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In response to the Category 5 Cyclone, I was asked by the World Bank to coordinate a humanitarian drone mission to speed up the damage assessments. But I couldn’t find any local drone pilots at the time, so had to recruit two foreign drone companies from Australia and New Zealand instead. Their drone pilots did a great job under challenging conditions over the course of several weeks. I continue to be in touch with them and continue to learn from them. They’re top notch professionals.

I’m just really tired of seeing videos like the one above. Foreigners with the technology; locals as passive observers. It should of course be the other way around: Locals with the technology and foreigners as passive observers; foreigners holding umbrellas for local drone pilots. Seriously. Why can’t it be the other way around?

Fast forward to 2018. The South Pacific has been battered by an onslaught of major cyclones, no fewer than 4 in almost as many months. Unlike 2015, one local drone pilot deployed to the affected areas to support the relief efforts. Her name is Amrita Lal (pictured below) and she serves as the Coordinator of South Pacific Flying Labs based in Fiji. In deploying with the Red Cross following Cyclone Keni, Amrita became the first local drone pilot to deploy with a National Red Cross Society in the region.

Our mission at WeRobotics is to localize opportunity. We create local opportunities to participate in problem solving, to take the lead in problem solving, to be a real part of the solution, to have meaningful and sustainable impact. By localizing expertise in robotics, we create new opportunities to scale humanitarian aid, sustainable development, public health or nature conservation efforts locally. In so doing, we create local opportunities for professional development and upward mobility. How do we create and sustain these new opportunities? By localizing emerging technologies through our Flying Labs. (We like to call them Wakanda Flying Labs).

Demand for the skills that Amrita and her Flying Labs have is growing. This is the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) after all: the rise of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the global labor market, shutting down some job opportunities entirely while creating new ones. This is a disruptive time in human history. And we know from previous industrial revolutions that they create divides between the “have’s” and “have nots”; between the included and the excluded; between those who have access to new opportunities and those who don’t. The First Industrial revolution was powered by the steam engine along with the iron and textile industries. The second was powered by steel, oil and electricity. Digital technologies unleashed the Third Industrial Revolution. Each these revolutions created new opportunities for some (usually in high-income countries), and obliterated existing opportunities for others (usually in low-income countries).

The Digital Divide of the Third Industrial Revolution has created profound inequalities, and the Robotics Divide of the 4IR is already exacerbating these inequalities. (What’s that? You don’t have 3G in your village? Oh. Well sorry, we can’t fly our medical delivery drones to your village without 3G. Can we have our umbrella back?). As my new colleague from Cameroon, Marco Enoh, recently tweeted,

“We forcefully enabled the First Industrial Revolution, were sidelined during the Second Industrial Revolution, we developed dependency in the Third Industrial Revolution… Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution! What are we going to do? Either shape technologies for collective prosperity or forever remain at the lowest levels of global value chains.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new jobs in lower-income countries. But these jobs are almost always taken by foreign companies from higher-income countries. Why? Either because the local talent doesn’t exist, or because said local talent is not visible or connected to these new job opportunities. Our Flying Labs serve to overcome these unjust hurdles. Fact is, foreign companies are more expensive to hire. Foreign drone pilots need more time to deploy. They need international flights and hotels. They often don’t know the countries that they’re sent to and rarely know the local languages or customs. This creates an exciting business opportunity for Amrita and Marco, and their colleagues at other Flying Labs in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Robotics enables new business opportunities because robots enable an entirely new form of mobility—autonomous mobility. Autonomous mobility in the air (flying drones), in the oceans (swimming drones) and on land (driving drones). Mobility gives freedom, which creates new opportunities (think of the automotive revolution). This explains why we are committed to helping our Flying Labs and their partners use autonomous robotics to overcome the challenge of mobility in humanitarian aid, sustainable development, nature conservation and public health. We’ve borrowed some of this language from our new friends at World Bicycle Relief because their approach is similar to ours: It isn’t about the technology—bicycle or drone—it’s about localizing this technology sustainably and respectfully to create new opportunities.

So yes, we localize robotics. But that’s hardly the point. Robotics is simply a means to an end. We localize opportunities to scale local solutions. We localize opportunities to enable direct and local participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This explains why our Flying Labs are directly connected to each other; why Amrita from Pacific Flying Labs recently trained Leka and Team from Tanzania Flying Labs on how to use underwater drones; why Dania, Oscar and Humberto from Panama Flying Labs are working with us to create engineering solutions with Pacific Flying Labs; why Tanzania Flying Labs is helping to incubate Kenya Flying Labs and why Nepal Flying Labs is learning about cargo drones from Flying Labs in Peru and the Dominican Republic. Each of these connections in the Flying Labs network create new opportunities to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Amrita was presented with an important opportunity to become the first local, female drone pilot in her region to deploy with a National Red Cross Society. She grabbed it and ran with it. This experience has opened up new opportunities for her and her Flying Labs team in the Pacific. This includes incubating a new hub of Pacific Flying Labs in Vanuatu in coming months. So the next time Vanuatu has to deal with a major tropical cyclone or other consequences of climate change, the World Bank must not hire me or hire any foreign drone pilots to accelerate their damage assessments. No, they should instead hire Amrita and her team of drone natives from Pacific Flying Labs.