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. 

How Zanzibaris are Hacking Flying Robots

Island life can be rough for flying robots. They have to contend with sandy beaches, sea salt, overbearing heat, humidity, high winds and rapidly changing weather patterns featuring sudden downpours. Birds of prey can also be a major menace for flying robots. While these aren’t exactly the types of problems one typically comes across at humanitarian innovation labs in New York, Geneva or Singapore, they’re part of everyday life for our Tanzania Flying Labs and partners like the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). When team and I at WeRobotics were in Tanzania last month to continue building the local capacity of our Flying Labs, I had the opportunity to learn first hand from our Tanzanian friends about how they hack robotics solutions to survive island life.

Birds of prey are no joke when their airspace is invaded. I’ve experienced this several times while flying robots (UAVs/drones) over the past four years. The aerial photograph above, for example, was taken about 2 years ago in South Africa. I raced to land my UAV as soon as I spotted the eagle but the bird came in for attack nonetheless. I was seriously worried that the eagle would be injured but luckily it swerved away at the last second.

Turns out birds of prey are a problem for many UAV pilots around the world. According to senseFly, a leading UAV manufacturer, bird strikes against UAVs are “surprisingly common and occur in many parts of the world; not only in Australia but also parts of Africa, select US states, parts of Europe and in Latin America.” Our Tanzanian team and partners face similar challenges when flying in Zanzibar, with some of their UAVs no longer operational after encounters with birds of prey. So they’ve tried a number of different tactics and the one that seems to work the best for now is deceivingly simple.

I found about this while looking over the shoulder of my colleague Khadija as she was prepared a third UAV for flight. I hadn’t seen aluminum foil on a flying robot before and couldn’t figure out what it was for. So I asked Khadija, who explained: “This is to keep the birds away; they don’t like it when we invade their airspace, they were there first, after all. So we simply tape some foil to a wing, which shines and keeps the birds away.” Perhaps the eagles realize that birds aren’t supposed to shine, so they keep their distance. Now, this isn’t exactly a sexy solution by any means, and it barely costs 25 cents, but it works.

Humanitarian technology doesn’t have to be shiny or expensive, it just has to work. Another simple way that our Zanzibari friends are hacking UAV flights to help robots cope with island life has to do with the orange tarp below.

When aerial robots land on sand, the grains can wreck havoc on the motors, cameras and sensors. This is especially true if you’re flying (and landing) several times a day for many weeks on end. It’s also worth noting that non-sandy landing sites can be quite few and far between in some parts of the island. So our local colleagues have been experimenting with fishing nets and most recently tarps in order to catch the robots as they come in for landing. They’re still working on refining this technique as this video shows:

Have you come across other examples of local adaptations of robotics/UAV technology in Africa, Asia or Latin America? If so, I’d really like to hear from you so I can share them with our growing network of Flying Labs. Thank you!

Cargo Drones Deliver in the Amazon Rainforest

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

The Amazon is home to thousands of local indigenous communities spread across very remote areas. As a result, these sparsely populated communities rarely have reliable access to essential medicines and public health services. Local doctors in the region of Contamana report an average of 45 snakebites per month and no rapid access to antivenom, for example. We recently traveled to the rainforest to learn more about these challenges, and to explore whether cargo drones (UAVs) could realistically be used to overcome some of these problems in a sustainable manner. We’re excited to share the results of our latest field tests in this new report (PDF); Spanish version here. For high-resolution photos of the field tests, please follow this link. Videos below.

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Our cargo drone flights were carried out in collaboration with the Peruvian Ministry of Health and local doctors. The field-tests themselves were coordinated by our local WeRobotics lab: Peru Flying Labs. Anti-venom was flown from the town of Contamana to the more remote village of Pampa Hermosa about 40 kilometers away. A regular boat (canoe) takes up to 6 hours to complete the journey. Our drone took around 35 minutes.

At night, we flew the drone back to Contamana with blood samples. While cargo drone projects typically use very expensive technology, WeRobotics prefers to use affordable and locally repairable solutions instead. Behind the scenes footage of the actual cargo drone flown in the Amazon is available in the video below.

Thanks to the success of our first drone deliveries, we’ve been invited back by the Ministry of Health and local doctors to carry out additional field tests. This explains why our Peru Flying Labs team is back in the Amazon this very week to carry out additional drone deliveries. We’re also gearing up to carry out deliveries across a distance of more than 100km using affordable drones. In parallel, we’re also working on this innovative Zika-control project with our Peru Flying Labs; drawing on lessons learned from our work in the Amazon Rainforest.

We’ll be giving a free Webinar presentation on all our efforts in Peru on Wednesday, February 22nd at 11am New York time / 4pm London. Please join our email-list for more information.

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To support our local Flying Labs teams in Peru, Nepal and/or Tanzania with donations, kindly contact Peter Mosur (peter@werobotics.org). For media inquiries on the Amazon Rainforest project and WeRobotics, please contact Dr. Patrick Meier (patrick@werobotics). Ministry of Health officials and other local partners are also available for interviews.


About WeRobotics

The mission of WeRobotics is to scale the positive impact of social good projects through the use of appropriate robotics solutions. We do this by creating robotics labs (Flying Labs) that transfer professional skills and robotics solutions locally. We have Flying Labs in Asia (Nepal), Africa (Tanzania), and South America (Peru). WeRobotics is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which enabled the recent project in the Amazon rain-forest with our Peru Flying Labs.

First Ever Cargo Drone Deliveries in Amazon Rainforest

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

The Amazon is home to thousands of local indigenous communities spread across very remote areas. As a result, these sparsely populated communities rarely have reliable access to essential medicines and public health services. Local doctors in the region report an average of 45 snakebites per month and no rapid access to anti-venom meds, for example. We recently traveled to the rainforest to learn more about these challenges and to explore whether cargo drones (UAVs) could realistically be used to overcome some of these challenges in a sustainable manner. We’re excited to share that our cargo drone flights in the Amazon rainforest were a big success!

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This unique and successful pilot project was a big team effort including our Peru Flying Labs Coordinator Juan Bergelund, UAV del Peru and the Peruvian Ministry of Health along with some of Peru’s leading public health experts. We carried out both day and night autonomous flights between local health hub Contamana and the remote village of Pampa Hermosa around 40 kilometers away. The drones delivered life-saving anti-venom medicines as well as blood samples. The flights took around 35 minutes compared to traditional riverboat transportation, which can take up to 6 hours.

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We have already been asked by multiple local authorities in the region to carry out additional flights in coming months. These flights will test the aerial delivery of medical supplies across 100+ kilometers. A detailed review of our recent flight tests will be released in early January along with high definition pictures and videos. Our Peru Flying Labs will also be working on this Zika reduction project in Peru using cargo drones. For media enquiries, please contact Dr. Patrick Meier (patrick@werobotics) and Juan Bergelund (juan@werobotics). Ministry of Health officials and other partners are also available for interviews.

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In the meantime, we wish to sincerely thank all our outstanding partners and colleagues in Peru for their invaluable support and partnership over the past two weeks. We are very excited to continue our good work together in coming months and years.


About WeRobotics

The mission of WeRobotics is to scale the positive impact of social good projects through the use of appropriate robotics solutions. We do this by creating robotics labs (Flying Labs) that transfer professional skills and robotics solutions locally. We have Flying Labs in Asia (Nepal), Africa (Tanzania) and South America (Peru). WeRobotics is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which enabled the recent project in the Amazon rainforest with our Peru Flying Labs.

The Most Comprehensive Study on Drones in Humanitarian Action

In August 2015, the Swiss humanitarian organization FSD kindly hired me as a consultant to work on the EU-funded Drones in Humanitarian Action program. I had the pleasure of working closely with FSD and team during the past 16 months. Today represents the exciting culmination of a lot of hard work by many dedicated individuals.

Today we’re launching our comprehensive report on “Drones in Humanitarian Action: A Guide to the Use of Airborne Systems in Humanitarian Crises.” The full report is available here (PDF). Our study draws on extensive research and many, many consultations carried out over a year and a half. The report covers the principle actors & technologies along with key applications and case studies on both mapping and cargo drones. Note that the section on cargo delivery is drawn from a larger 20+ page study I carried out. Please contact me directly if you’d like a copy of this more detailed study. In the meantime, I want to sincerely thank my fellow co-authors Denise Soesilo, Audrey Lessard-Fontaine, Jessica Du Plessis & Christina Stuhlberger for this productive and meaningful collaboration.

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The report and case studies are also available on the FSD Website.