Digital Humanitarians in Space: Planet Launches Rapid Response Team

Planet has an unparalleled constellation of satellites in orbit. In addition to their current constellation of 130 micro-satellites, they have 5 RapidEye satellites and the 7 SkySat satellites (recently acquired from Google). What’s more, 48 new micro-satellites were just launched into orbit this July, bringing the total number of Planet satellites to 190. And once the 48 satellites begin imaging, Planet will have global, daily coverage of the entire Earth, covering over 150 million square kilometers every day. Never before has the humanitarian community had access to such a vast amount of timely satellite imagery.

As described in my book, Digital Humanitarians, this vast amount of new data adds to the rapidly growing Big Data challenge that humanitarian organizations are facing. As such, what humanitarians need is not just data philanthropy—i.e., free and rapid access to relevant data—they also need insight philanthropy. This is where Planet’s new Rapid Response Team comes in.

Planet just launched this new digital volunteer program in partnership with the Digital Humanitarian Network to help ensure that Planet’s data and insights get to the right people at the right time to accelerate and improve humanitarian response. After major disasters hit, members of the Rapid Response Team can provide the latest satellite images available and/or geospatial analysis directly to field-based aid organizations.

So if you’re an established humanitarian group and need rapid access to satellite imagery and/or analysis after major disasters, simply activate the Digital Humanitarian Network. You can request satellite images of disaster affected areas on a daily basis as well as before/after analysis (sliders) of those areas as shown above. This is an exciting and generous new resource being made available to the international humanitarian community by Planet, so please do take advantage.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to get in touch by email or via the comments section below. I serve as an advisor to Planet and am keen to make the Rapid Response initiative as useful as possible to humanitarian organizations.

How to Defeat Zika with Flying Robots

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

Mosquitos kill more humans every year than any other animal on the planet and conventional methods to reduce mosquito-borne illnesses haven’t worked as well as many hoped. So we’ve been hard at work since receiving this USAID grant six months ago to reduce Zika incidence and related threats to public health.


Our partners at the joint FAO/IAEA Insect Pest Control Lab in Vienna, Austria have been working to perfect the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) in order to sterilize and release male mosquitos in Zika hotspots. Releasing millions of said male mosquitos increases competition for female mosquitos, making it more difficult for non-sterilized males to find a mate.


We learned last year at a USAID Co-Ideation Workshop that this technique can reduce the overall mosquito population in a given area by 90%. The way this works is by releasing millions of sterilized mosquitos using cars, helicopters and/or planes, or even backpacks.

Our approach seeks to complement and extend (not replace) these existing delivery methods. The challenge with manned aircraft is that they are expensive to operate and maintain. They may also not be able to target areas with great accuracy given the altitudes they have to fly at.


Cars are less expensive, but they rely on ground infrastructure. This can be a challenge in some corners of the world when roads become unusable due to rainy seasons or natural disasters. What’s more, not everyone lives on or even close to a road.


Our IAEA colleagues thus envision establishing small mosquito breeding labs in strategic regions in order to release sterilized male mosquitos and reduce the overall mosquito population in select hotspots. The idea would be to use both ground and aerial release methods with cars and flying robots.


The real technical challenge here, besides breeding millions of sterilized mosquitos, is actually not the flying robot (drone/UAV) but rather the engineering that needs to go into developing a release mechanism that attaches to the flying robot. In fact, we’re more interested in developing a release mechanism that will work with any number of flying robots, rather than having a mechanism work with one and only one drone/UAV. Aerial robotics is evolving quickly and it is inevitable that drones/UAVs available in 6-12 months will have greater range and payload capacity that today. So we don’t want to lock our release mechanism into a platform that may be obsolete by the end of the year. So for now we just using a DJI Matrice M600 Pro so we can focus on engineering the release mechanism.

Screenshot 2017-06-09 13.24.22

Developing this release mechanism is anything but trivial. Ironically, mosquitos are particularly fragile. So if they get damaged while being released, game over. What’s more, in order to pack one million mosquitos (about 2.5kg in weight) into a particularly confined space, they need to be chilled or else they’ll get into a brawl and damage each other, i.e., game over. (Recall the last time you were stuck in the middle seat in Economy class on a transcontinental flight). This means that the release mechanism has to include a reliable cooling system. But wait, there’s more. We also need to control the rate of release, i.e., to control how many thousands mosquitos are released per unit of space and time in order to drop said mosquitos in a targeted and homogenous manner. Adding to the challenge is the fact that mosquitos need time to unfreeze during free fall so they can fly away and do their thing, ie, before they hit the ground or else, game over.

We’ve already started testing our early prototype using “mosquito substitutes” like cumin and anise as the latter came recommended by mosquito experts. Next month, we’ll be at the FAO/IAEA Pest Control Lab in Vienna to test the release mechanism indoors using dead and live mosquitos. We’ll then have 3 months to develop a second version of the prototype before heading to Latin America to field test the release mechanism with our Peru Flying Labs. One of these tests will involve the the integration of the flying robot and the release mechanism in terms of both hardware and software. In other words, we’ll be testing the integrated system over different types of terrain and weather conditions in Peru specifically.


We are already developing the mission control app pictured above to program our autonomous flights. The app will let the operator decide how many sterilized mosquitos to release at any given time and location. Our field tests in Peru will also seek to identify the optimal flight parameters for the targeted and homogenous delivery of sterilized mosquitos. For example, what is the optimal speed and altitude of the flying robot to ensure that the mosquitos are released over the intended areas?

Our Peru Flying Labs has already developed expertise and capacity in cargo drone delivery, most recently in projects in the Amazon Rainforest with the Ministry of Health (more here). This new Zika reduction project –and in particularly the upcoming field tests — will enable us to further build our Peruvian team’s capacity in cargo space. The plan is for Peru Flying Labs to operate the flying robots and release mechanisms as need once we have a more robust version of the release mechanism. The vision here is to have a fleet of flying robots at our Flying Labs equipped with release mechanisms in order to collectively release millions of sterilized mosquitos over relatively large areas. And because our Peruvian colleagues are local, they can rapidly deploy as needed.

For now, though, our WeRobotics Engineering Team (below) is busy developing the prototype out of our Zurich office. So if you happen to be passing through, definitely let us know, we’d love to show you the latest and give you a demo. We’ll also be reaching out the Technical University of Peru who are members of our Peru Flying Labs to engage with their engineers as we get closer to the field tests in country.

As an aside, our USAID colleagues recently encouraged us to consider an entirely separate, follow up project totally independently of IAEA whereby we’d be giving rides to Wolbachia treated mosquitos. Wolbachia is the name of bacteria that is used to infect male mosquitos so they can’t reproduce. IAEA does not focus on Wolbachia at all, but other USAID grantees do. Point being, the release mechanism could have multiple applications. For example, instead of releasing mosquitos, the mechanism could scatter seeds. Sound far-fetched? Think again.

The Future of Crisis Mapping is Finally Here

In 2010, I had the opportunity to participate in the very first Disaster Response Working Group meeting held at Facebook. The digital humanitarian response to the tragic Haiti earthquake months earlier was the main point of discussion. Digital Humanitarians at the time had crowdsourced social media monitoring and satellite imagery analysis to create a unique set of crisis maps used by a range of responders. Humanitarian organizations to this day point to the Haiti response as a pivotal milestone in the history of crisis mapping. Today marks an equally important milestone thanks to three humanitarian groups and Facebook.

Facebook just announced a new partnership with UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), American Red Cross (ARC) and the World Food Program (WFP) to begin sharing actionable, real-time data that will fill critical data gaps that exist in the first hours of a sudden onset disaster. UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP deserve considerable praise in partnering on such an innovative effort. As the IFRC’s World Disaster Report noted in 2005, having access to information during disasters is equally important as having access to food, water and medicine. But unlike these other commodities, information has a far shorter shelf life. In other words, the value of information depreciates very quickly; information rots fast.

Disaster responders need information that is both reliable and timely. Both are typically scarce after disasters. Saving time can make all the difference. The faster responders get reliable information, the faster they can prioritize and mobilize relief efforts based on established needs. Information takes time to analyze, however, especially unstructured information. Digital Humanitarians encountered this Big Data challenge first hand during the Haiti Earthquake response, and after most disasters since then. Still, online data has the potential to fill crucial data gaps. This is especially true if this data is made available in a structured and responsible way by a company like Facebook; a platform that reaches nearly 2 billion people around the world. And by listening to what aid organizations need, Facebook is providing this information in a format that is actually usable and useful.

Listening to Humanitarian Needs

In early 2016, I began consulting with Facebook on their disaster mapping initiative. One of our first orders of business was to reach out to subject matter experts around the world. It is all too easy for companies in Silicon Valley to speculate about solutions that could be useful to humanitarian organizations. The problem with that approach is that said companies almost never consult seasoned humanitarian professionals in the process. Facebook took a different approach. They spent well over half-a-year meeting with and listening to humanitarian professionals across a number of different aid organizations. Then, they co-developed the solution together with experts from UNCIEF, IFRC, ARC, WFP and myself. This process insured that they built solutions that are actually needed by the intended end users. Other Silicon Valley companies really ought to take the same approach when seeking to support social good efforts in a meaningful manner.

UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP bring extensive expertise and global reach to this new partnership with Facebook. They have both the capacity and strong interest to fully leverage the new disaster maps being made available. And each of these humanitarian organizations have spent a considerable amount of time and energy collaborating with Facebook to iterate on the disaster maps. This type of commitment, partnership and leadership from the humanitarian sector is vital and indeed absolutely necessary to innovate and scale innovation.

One of the areas in which Facebook exercised great care was in applying protection standards. This was another area in which I provided guidance, along with colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). We worked closely with Facebook to ensure that their efforts followed established protection protocols in the humanitarian sector. In September 2016, for example, three Facebookers and I participated in a full-day protection workshop organized the ICRC. Facebook presented on the new mapping project – still in its very early stages – and actively solicited feedback from the ICRC and a dozen other humanitarian organizations that participated in the workshop. Facebook noted upfront that they didn’t have all the answers and welcomed as much input as humanitarian professionals could give. As it turns out, they were already well on their way to being fully in line with the ICRC’s own protection protocols.

Facebook also worked with its own internal privacy, security and legal teams to ensure that the datasets it produced were privacy-preserving and consistent with legal standards around the world. This process took a long time. Some insight from the “inside”: I began joking that this process makes the UN look fast. But the fact that Facebook was so careful and meticulous when it came to data privacy was certainly reassuring. To be sure, Facebook developed a rigorous review process to ensure that our applied research was carried out responsibly and ethically. This demonstrates that using data for high-impact, social good projects need not be at odds with privacy—we can achieve both. By using data aggregating and spatial smoothing, for example, we can reduce noise in the data and identify important trends while following its data privacy standards.

Another important area of collaboration very early on focused specifically on data bias. The team at Facebook was careful to emphasize that their data was not a silver bullet – it is representative of people who use Facebook on mobile with Location Services enabled. To this end, one of the areas I worked on closely with Facebook was validation. For example, in an early iteration of the maps, I analyzed mainstream media news reports on the Fort McMurray Fires in Canada and matched them with specific patterns we had observed on Facebook’s maps. The results suggested that Facebook’s geospatial data was providing reliable insights about evacuation and safety on the ground albeit in real time compared to the media reports which were published many hours later.

Facebook Safety Check

Within 24 hours of activating Safety Check, we see that there are far fewer people than usual in the town of Fort McMurray. Areas that are color-coded red reflect much lower numbers of Facebook users there compared to the same time the week before. This makes sense since these locations are affected by the wildfires and have thus been evacuated.

We can use Facebook’s Safety Check data to create live disaster maps that quickly highlight where groups of users are checking in safe, and also where they are not checking in safe. This could provide a number of important proxies such as disaster damage, for example.

Facebook Location Maps

We see that before the crisis began (left plot) people were located in the town in expected numbers, but quickly vacated over the next 24 hour period (map turning red). Even within just an hour and half into the crisis we can tell that users are evacuating the town (the red color indicating low values of people present compared to baseline data). This signal becomes even more clear and consistent as the crisis progresses.

Population here refers to the population of Facebook users. These aggregated maps can provide a proxy for population density and movement before, during and after humanitarian disasters.

In the above video, the blue line that stretches diagonally across the map is Highway 63, which was the primary evacuation route for many in McMurray. The video shows where the general population of Facebook users is moving over time at half-hour intervals. Notice that the blue line becomes even denser between 1 and 3 A.M. local time. Reports from the mainstream media published that afternoon revealed that many drivers ended up having to “camp” along the highway overnight.

Take the map below of the Kaikoura Earthquake in New Zealand as another example. The disaster maps for the earthquake show the location and movement of people in Kaikoura following the disaster. One day after the earthquake, we notice that the population begins to evacuate the city. Using news articles, we can cross validate that residents of Kaikoura were evacuated to Christchurch, 200 kilometers away. Several days later, we notice from the Facebook maps that individuals are starting to return to Kaikoura, presumably to repair and rebuild their community.

It’s still early days, and Facebook plans to work closely alongside their partners to better understand and report biases in the data. This is another reason why Facebook’s partnership with UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP is so critical. These groups have the capacity to compare the disaster maps with other datasets, validate the maps with field surveys, and support Facebook in understanding how to address issues of representativeness. One approach they are exploring is to compare the disaster maps to the population density datasets that Facebook has already open-sourced. By making this comparison, we can clearly communicate any areas that are likely to be inadequately covered by the disaster data. They are also working with Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to develop bias-correcting solutions based on maps of cell phone connectivity. For more on social media, bias and crisis mapping, see Chapter 2 of Digital Humanitarians.

Moving Forward

Our humanitarian partners are keen to use Facebook’s new solution in their relief efforts. Thanks to Facebook’s data, we can create a series of unique maps that in turn provide unique insights and do so in real-time. These maps can be made available right away and updated at 15 minute intervals if need be. Let me repeat that: every 15 minutes. This is the first time in history that humanitarian organizations will have access to such high frequency, privacy-preserving structured data powered by some 1.86 billion online users.

There is no doubt that responders would’ve had far more situational awareness and far more quickly had these crisis maps existed in the wake of Haiti’s tragic earthquake in 2010. Since the maps aggregate Facebook data to administrative boundaries, humanitarian partners can also integrate this unique dataset into their own systems. During the first Facebook Disaster Working Group meeting back in 2010, we asked ourselves how Facebook might leverage it’s own data to create unique maps to help aid organizations reduce suffering and loss of life. Today, not only do we have an answer to this question, we also have the beginnings of an operational solution that humanitarians can use directly.

Facebook’s new disaster mapping solution is not a silver bullet, however; all my colleagues at Facebook recognize this full well, as do our humanitarian partners. These maps simply serve as new, unique and independent sources of real-time data and insights for humanitarian organizations. The number of Facebook users has essentially doubled since the Haiti Earthquake, nearing 2 billion users today. The more people around the planet connect and share on Facebook, the more insights responders gain on how best to carry out relief efforts during major disasters. This information is a public good that has the potential to save lives, and it’s crucial that insights derived from the data be made available to those who can put it to use. I sincerely hope that other Silicon Valley companies take note of these efforts and following in Facebook’s footsteps.

As a next step, Facebook is looking to both international and local humanitarian partners to help improve, validate and measure the impact of these new disaster maps. As the Facebook team works to validate the maps with the humanitarian community, they also hope to make the maps available to aid organizations though a dedicated API and Visualization tool. Interested organizations will be asked to follow a simple application process to gain access to the disaster maps.

Facebook disaster maps are really unique and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface vis-à-vis the different humanitarian efforts these maps can inform. For example, my team and I at WeRobotics were recently in the Dominican Republic (DR) where we ran a full-fledged disaster response exercise with the country’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the World Food Program (WFP). The purpose of the simulation—which focused on searching for survivors and assessing disaster damage—was to develop and test coordination mechanisms to facilitate the rapid deployment of small drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). As the drone pilots began to program their drones to carry out the aerial surveys, I turned to my WFP colleague Gabriela and said:

“What if, during the next disaster, we used Facebook’s Safety Check Map to prioritize which areas the drones should search? What if we used Facebook’s Population Map to prioritize aerial surveys of areas that are being abandoned, possibly to due to collapsed buildings or other types of infrastructure damage? Since the Facebook maps are available in near real-time, we could program the drone flights within minutes of a disaster. What do you think?”

Gaby looked back at the drones and said:

“Wow. This would change everything.”

Global Thought Leadership in Social Sector Robotics

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

“I’ve been to countless remote sensing conferences over the past 30 years but WeRobotics Global absolutely ranks as the best event I’ve been to.” – Remote Sensing Expert

“The event was really mind-blowing. I’ve participated in many workshops over the past 20 years. WeR Global was by far the most insightful and practical. It is also amazing how closely together everyone is working — irrespective of who is working where (NGO, UN, private sector, donor). I’ve never seen such a group of people come together this away.” – Humanitarian Professional

“WeRobotics Global is completely different to any development meeting or workshop I’ve been to in recent years. The discussions flowed seamlessly between real world challenges, genuine bottom-up approaches and appropriate technology solutions. Conversations were always practical and strikingly transparent. This was a highly unusual event.” – International Donor

WeRobotics Global has become a premier forum for social good robotics. The feedback featured above was unsolicited. On June 1, 2017, we convened our first, annual global event, bringing together 34 organizations to New York City (full list below) to shape the global agenda and future use of robotics in the social good sector. WeRobotics Global was kindly hosted by Rockefeller, the first donor to support our efforts. They opened the event with welcome remarks and turned it over to Patrick Meier from WeRobotics who provided an overview of WeRobotics and set the big picture context for social robotics.

The first panel featured our Flying Labs Coordinators from Tanzania (Yussuf), Peru (Juan) and Nepal (Uttam). Each shared the hard work they’ve been doing over the past 6-10 months on localizing and applying robotics solutions. Yussuf spoke about the lab’s use of aerial robotics for disaster damage assessment following the earthquake in Bukoba and for coastal monitoring, environmental monitoring and forestry management. He emphasized the importance of community engagement and closed with new projects that Tanzania Flying Labs is working on such as mangrove monitoring for the Department of Forestry. Juan presented the work of the labs in the Amazon Rainforest, which is a joint effort with the Peruvian Ministry of Health. Together, they are field-testing the use of affordable and locally repairable flying robots for the delivery of antivenom and other medical payload between local clinics and remote villages. Juan noted that Peru Flying Labs is gearing up to carry out a record number of flight tests this summer using a larger and more diverse fleet of flying robots. Last but not least, Uttam showed how Nepal Flying Labs has been using flying robots for agriculture monitoring, damage assessment and mapping of property rights. He also gave an overview of the social entrepreneurship training and business plan competition recently organized by Nepal Flying Labs. This business incubation training has resulted in the launch of 4 new Nepali start-up companies focused on Robotics-as-a-Service. 

The following videos provide highlights from each of our Flying Labs: Tanzania, Peru and Nepal.

The second panel featured talks on sector based solutions starting with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). The Federation (Aarathi) spoke about their joint project with WeRobotics; looking at cross-sectoral needs for various robotics solutions in the South Pacific. IFRC is exploring at the possibility of launching a South Pacific Flying Labs with a strong focus on women and girls. Pix4D (Lorenzo) addressed the role of aerial robotics in agriculture, giving concrete examples of successful applications while providing guidance to our Flying Labs Coordinators. The Wall Street Journal (Sally) spoke about the use of aerial robotics in news gathering and investigative journalism. She specifically emphasized the importance of using flying robots for storytelling. Duke Marine Labs (David) closed the panel with an overview of their projects in nature conservation and marine life protection, highlighting their use of machine learning for automated feature detection for real-time analysis.


Panel number three addressed the transformation of transportation. UNICEF (Judith) highlighted the field tests they have been carrying out in Malawi; using cargo robotics to transport HIV samples in order to accelerate HIV testing and thus treatment. UNICEF has also launched an air corridor in Malawi to enable further field-testing of flying robots. MSF (Oriol) shared their approach to cargo delivery using aerial robotics. They shared examples from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and emphasized the importance of localizing appropriate robotics solutions that can be maintained locally. MSF also called for the launch of PNG Flying Labs. IAEA was unable to attend WeR Global, so Patrick and Adam from WeRobotics gave the talk instead. WeRobotics is teaming up with IAEA to design and test a release mechanism for sterilized mosquitos in order to reduce the incidence of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. More here. Finally, Llamasoft (Sid) closed the panel with a strong emphasis on the need to collect and share structured data to accurately carry out comparative cost-benefit-analyses of cargo delivery via flying robots versus conventional means. Sid used the analogy of self-driving cars to highlight how problematic the current lack of data vis-a-vis reliably evaluating the impact of cargo robotics.


The fourth and final panel went beyond aerial robotics. Digger (Thomas) showed how they convert heavy construction vehicles into semi-autonomous platforms to clear landmines and debris in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. Science in the Wild (Ulyana) was alas unable to attend the event, so Patrick from WeRobotics gave the talk instead. This focused on the use of swimming robots to monitor glacial lakes in the Himalaya. The purpose of the effort is to identify cracks in the lake floors before they trigger what local villagers call the tsunamis of the Himalaya. OpenROV (David) gave a talk on the use of diving robots, sharing real-world examples and providing exciting updates on the new Trident diving robot. Planet Labs (Andrew) gave the closing talk, highlighting how space robotics (satellites) are being used across a wide range of social good projects. He emphasized the importance of integrating both aerial and satellite imagery to support social good projects.

Screenshot 2017-06-05 12.36.33

The final session at WeR Global comprised breakout groups to identify next steps for WeRobotics and the social good sector more broadly. Many quality insights and recommendations were shared during the report back. One such recommendation was to hold WeR Global again, and sooner rather than later. So we look forward to organizing WeRobotics Global 2018. We will be providing updates via our blog and email list. We will also use our blog and email list to share select videos of the individual talks from Global 2017 along with their respective slide decks.

In the meantime, a big thanks to all participants and speakers for making Global 2017 such an unforgettable event. And sincerest thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for hosting us at their headquarters in New York City.

Organizations that participated in WeRobotics Global 2017

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), World Food Program (WFP), UN Development Program (UNDP),Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), UNICEF, World Bank, World Economic Forum (WEF), Cadasta, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Duke Marine Labs, Fauna and Flora International, Science in the Wild, Drone Journalism Lab, Wall Street Journal, ESRI, Pix4D, Radiant, OpenAerialMap, Planet Labs, Llamasoft, Amazon Prime Air, senseFly, OpenROV, Digger, UPenn Robotics, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Rockefeller Foundation, Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation, USAID and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

Creating a League of Luxury Yachts for Disaster Response

Yes, you read the title right, and yes, I’m serious. I recently met with the head of the Fiji Red Cross, and while the primary focus of our discussion was the use of aerial robotics (UAVs) for disaster risk reduction and response, the Red Cross head was full of other ideas. He recounted, for example, that many yacht owners had offered their services after Cyclone Winston swept through the South Pacific. They offered the use of their yachts to reach the heavily affected outer islands and to transport doctors, humanitarian assessment teams and relief supplies. When he saw me smiling I told him that a good colleague and I had actually worked on developing this concept in early 2016.

It was particularly insightful when the Red Cross head mentioned how he had really, really wanted to leverage this untapped resource but was simply too over-stretched to coordinate a Luxury Yachts League for Disaster Response. I smiled again because the concept I had worked on last year was specifically geared towards developing those coordination mechanisms and building the necessary skills amongst yacht pilots before the next major disaster.

Fact is, there is no established interface for national or international aid groups to coordinate effectively and efficiently with yacht owners or their crews. The efforts that do exist appear to be more ad hoc or independent. But yacht owners and crews are rarely disaster response experts, which means that are not familiar with humanitarian coordination mechanisms. As a result, they often don’t know how to best plug into or augment ongoing relief efforts. This disconnect prevents organizations like the Fiji Red Cross from taking advantage of logistics solutions offered by yachts. And so yachts remain an untapped resource for humanitarian logistics, specifically in the context of Small Island States and countries with extensive coastlines like India and Chile.

The following is taken from the concept note I co-authored:

“Multimillion dollar yachts and their word-class international crews are not commonly considered as having the potential to play an invaluable humanitarian role in the aftermath of major disasters. This oversight is a massive mistake. Their ability to expertly and rapidly transport doctors, field humanitarians and life-saving goods to disaster-affected communities near coastlines and major rivers should not be underestimated. And yet, this highly skilled expertise and proven technology is consistently overlooked following major disasters.

The main reason for this is simple: an international network of world-class yacht crews has not been catalyzed, coordinated and trained to serve in humanitarian efforts. Such a response could leverage comparative advantages by providing a necessary complement to larger disaster response efforts by governments, international NGOs and the United Nations. A prepared Yachts League could respond more more quickly, avoiding some of the geopolitical hurdles. They would be fully self-financed and self-sufficient.”

What’s more, these yachts could serve as takeoff and landing points for UAVs in order to carry out areal assessments along coastlines in further inland after major disasters. They could also be used to deploy marine robotics to inspect harbors, bridges and other maritime infrastructure. So what are we waiting for? Yacht owners were directly offering their fully equipped yachts and expert crews to the Red Cross in the wake of Cyclone Pam. So lets start with Fiji and build practical coordination mechanisms and provide the necessary training to enable the use of yachts in future disasters in the South Pacific. We can then expand from there with lessons learned and best practices. The key is to work directly with established humanitarian organizations from the start.

Anyone interested in taking the lead on this?

Humanitarian Robotics, Murphy’s Law and What To Do About It

Like any other technology used in humanitarian settings, robotics solutions can break down when you need them the most. A few months ago, for example, my team and I at WeRobotics were in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest with a relatively expensive cargo drone that could hardly fly without become dangerously unstable. Murphy’s law is alive and well in the Amazon as it is in other places we work in like Tanzania, Nepal, Haiti and Maldives. So what to do?

Introducing emerging technologies in aid and development projects in the global South comes with a range of challenges and responsibilities. What’s the point of transferring robotics solutions to local partners if these platforms break and can’t be repaired locally? In one country we work in, for example, a major international organization has purchased about a dozen flying robots, and every few months at least one of these UAVs has to be shipped back to Europe for repairs. Not only does this really add up in terms of shipping costs, but it also creates significant project delays when half your fleet is out of the country for months on end. 

In Nepal last year, our Flying Labs team were out of propellors which meant we had to ship some new ones in from Europe. This is expensive and it didn’t work: the propellors were returned to us 2 months later because the shipping service had not found the address of our local Flying Labs Coordinator. (Yes, we’re exploring 3D printer solutions, but these break as well). In Tanzania, the UAV pictured above has seen a frustrating number of technical and software failures, which has prevented our Flying Labs from actually completing important projects. That particular UAV has had to be shipped back to Europe twice for repairs, costing both time and money.

So what to do? Going with cheaper, “DIY” UAVs doesn’t necessarily solve the issue. These don’t tend to be as robust or easy to use even if they are more expendable than costly models. That said, the most expensive UAV in our Flying Labs fleet has been the most problematic in terms of repeated technical failures. Sure, we could buy more reliable (costly) UAVs and have backups just in case but this does require more funding, and these UAVs will inevitably require repairs at some point too. So this “solution” doesn’t actually address the underlying issue: the dependency we create when introducing these new robotics solutions.

Obviously we need to train our Flying Labs to repair and service these UAVs locally. We’ve started doing this, and while our Labs won’t become maintenance maestros overnight, I’m personally really excited that we’re moving forward on this. Instead of shipping UAVs back to Europe for repairs, we’ll eventually be able to repair most technical problems onsite at our Tanzania Flying Labs, for example. Besides the obvious advantages (cost-savings and time-savings), this service will generate an important source of income for our local Flying Labs staff. And given that the mandate of our Labs is to create local jobs and incubate local businesses that offer robotics as service, one such business could well specialize in repairs and maintenance. 

So when international organizations and companies in the country or region in question need their UAVs fixed, they could pay our Labs to carry out repairs instead of shipping then back to manufacturers in Europe or the US. There is a small catch, however. By repairing the UAVs ourselves, we run the risk of voiding the warranty on the UAV. So we’re starting with small, common repairs that don’t pose this problem. But in the long run, we want to have leading UAV manufacturers certify our Flying Labs as official partners for repairs. This too won’t happen overnight. First we first need to prove ourselves with basic repairs and clearly demonstrate the savings in cost and time that UAV operators gain from having their UAVs fixed at one of our local labs.

We’re heading back to Tanzania in a few weeks to provide additional training on how to repair these technologies locally. If you’d like to help us train our Flying Labs on UAV/drone repairs and maintenance, please do get in touch. Thanks!

How To Coordinate UAV Deployments During Disasters

My team and I at WeRobotics are partnering with the World Food Program (WFP) to develop practical coordination mechanisms for UAV deployments in collaboration. These will be developed with a range of national & local partners. In this post I want to share the basic coordination protocols we used in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam, a category 5 cyclone that devastated the islands of Vanuatu in 2015. By “we” I mean myself, the World Bank and two UAV companies from Australia (Heliwest) and New Zealand (X-Craft).

The World Bank tasked me with spearheading the UAV response to Cyclone Pam so I recruited the two companies to carry out the aerial surveys. I selected them from a dozen groups that had registered with the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) Global Pilot Roster. When we landed at the international airport in Port Vila, we saw a very common scene. Military cargo aircraft filled with food, water and other relief items. Helicopters were also being chartered to support the relief efforts. And commercial aircrafts like the one that had taken us to Vanuatu were also flying in and out on a daily basis.

We clearly needed to develop coordination mechanisms that would allow us to fly our UAVs in this relatively complex airspace. So within an hour of landing in Port Vila, I organized a joint meeting with the Government of Vanuatu, Air Traffic Control (ATC), World Bank, Australian Defense Force, New Zealand Defense Force and the two UAV companies. By the end of the 1-hour meeting we had agreed on a clear set of coordination protocols that would enable us to fly our UAVs safely in non-segregated airspace. And it wasn’t rocket science.

At 22:00 every night, we would email the Australian Defense Force (ADF) our flight plans for the following day. An example of such a plan is pictured above. By 23:00, the ADF would respond with a yes/no. (They said yes to all our plans). At 23:00, we would email our approved flight plans to controllers at ATC and start programming the UAV flights. We’d get a few hours of sleep and head back when it was still dark to reach the survey sites as early as possible. This was also true for areas near the airport since we could only fly our UAVs between 6am-8am based on the agreed protocols.

Once on site, we’d set up the UAVs and go through our regular check-lists to ensure they were calibrated, tested and ready to fly. Before take off, we would call ATC (we had the mobile phone numbers of 2 ATC operators) and proceed as follows:

“Hello ATC, this is the World Bank UAV Team. We are on site in [name of location] for flight number [x] and ready for takeoff. Do we have your permission?” 

After verbal confirmation, we would launch our UAVs and carry out the aerial survey. We flew below 400 feet (per UAV regulations) and never, ever strayed from our approved flight plan. The Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu had given us permission to fly Extended Line of Site, which meant we could fly beyond visual line of site as long as we could keep an eye on general airspace where our UAV was operating. After landing the UAV, we would call ATC back:

“Hello ATC, this is the World Bank UAV Team. We have just landed the UAV in [name of location] and have completed flight number [x]. Thanks.” 

Simple and yet highly effective for the context at hand. We had the mandate, all the right contacts and we everyone followed the coordination protocols. But this is just a subset of protocols required for coordinating UAV flights. There are other components such as data-sharing workflows that need to be in place well before a disaster. What’s more, in the case of Cyclone Pam, we were working with only two professional UAV teams in a Small Island State. Just weeks after Cyclone Pam, a devastating 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. The situation there was a lot more complex with at least 15 UAV teams self-deploying to the country.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nepal formally asked me to coordinate these teams, which turned out to be quite the nightmare. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) did not have the capacity or expertise to partner with us in coordinating UAV flights. Nor did UNDAC. Many of the self-deployed UAV teams had never worked in disaster response before let alone in a developing country. So they had no idea how to actually support  or plug into formal relief efforts.

While most of UAV teams blamed connectivity issues (slow and intermittent email/phone access) for being unable to follow our coordination efforts online, several of them had no problem live-tweeting pictures of their UAVs. So I teamed up with LinkedIn For Good to developed a very simple Twitter-based coordination system overnight. UAV teams could now tweet their flight plans which would get automatically added to an online map and database. The UAV teams kept tweeting but not a single one bothered to tweet their plan.

To say this was problematic is an understatement. When organizations like WFP are using manned aircraft and helicopters to deliver urgent relief supplies to affected communities, they and ATC need to know which UAVs are flying where, how high and when. This is also true of Search and Rescue (SaR) teams that often fly their helicopters at low altitudes. In due course, we’ll have transponders to track UAVs in real-time. But safety is not the only consideration here. There is also a question of efficiency. It turns out that several UAV teams in Nepal carried out aerial surveys of the exact same areas, which is hardly optimal.

So I applaud the WFP for their important leadership on this matter and look forward to working with them and in-country stakeholders to develop practical coordination mechanisms. In the meantime, WeRobotics has set up Nepal Flying Labs to build local capacity around the use of UAVs and enable local responders to use UAVs safely, responsibly and effectively. All of our Flying Labs will adopt the resulting coordination mechanisms developed with WFP and stakeholders.