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!

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