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!

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