Category Archives: Drones/UAVs

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.

screenshot-2016-12-02-09-03-23

Aerial Robotics and Agriculture: Opportunities for the Majority World

The majority of studies and articles on the use of drones/UAVs for agriculture seem to focus on examples and opportunities in the US, Europe or Japan. These reports talk about the needs for large scale aerial surveys over massive farms, machine learning algorithms for automated crop detection, and the development of sophisticated forecasting models to inform decisions at the very micro level. This is the realm of precision agriculture. But what about small-holder and family farms in the Majority World? Do flying robots make sense for them? Yes, in some cases, but not in the same way that this technology makes sense for large farms in highly industrialized countries.

First things first, smallholder and family farms won’t have as much need for long-range fixed-wing UAVs as ranchers do in the US. According to this FAO study (PDF), smallholder farms typically cover less than 0.02 square kilometers. Secondly, these farms do not necessarily need access to very high-resolution, orthorectified mosaics or fancy 3D models. Mosaics and 3D models require data processing software; and software requires a computer to run said software, not to mention having time to learn how to use said software. Without software, a farmer could still upload her aerial images to the cloud for processing but that requires a reliable and relatively fast Internet connection. Also, data processing means having to store that data before and after processing. So now the farmer needs software, a computer and a hard disk (or two for backup). 

I’m not suggesting that very high-resolution orthorectified mosaics, 3D models and multi-spectral sensors cannot add value to smallholder and family farms. Of course they can. Farmers have always needed accurate as well as up-to-date information on their crops and on the environmental conditions of the land on which their crops grow. I’m just suggesting a more practical approach to begin with. Simply getting a live video feed from a bird’s eye view can already reveal patterns that show everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that aren’t apparent at eye level.

At the end of the day, farming is an input-output problem. Local farmers can get a live video feed from the sky to subsequently reduce their inputs—water and pesticides—while maintaining the same output. But lets unpack that a bit. Once a farmer detects an irrigation problem from the video feed, they don’t need an other piece of robotics tech to intervene. They can easily see where the drone is hovering and simply walk over to the area with basic tools to intervene as needed. Smallholder and family farms do not have access to variable-rate sprayers and other fancy tractor tools that can take precision data and respond with precision interventions. So very high-res mosaics and 3D models may add little value in the context of smallholder farms in developing countries.

rededge-cam-nepal-rice-fields

Of course, some farmers may prefer to pay consultants or local companies to carry out these aerial surveys instead of leasing or owning a drone and carrying out the surveys themselves. In fact, some companies actually found it too “tedious to teach farmers how to use the drones they had made. Instead, they decided to focus on providing the much-needed service of mapping out farms and sites” (1). In stark contrast, my team & I at WeRobotics have really enjoyed training local partners in Nepal and Tanzania. We don’t find it tedious at all but rather highly rewarding. Building local capacity around the use of appropriate robotics solutions goes to the heart of our mission.

This explains why we’re creating local robotics labs—we call them Flying Labs—to transfer the skills and technologies that our partners need to scale the positive impact of their local efforts. So we’re especially keen to work with smallholder and family farms so they can use robotics solutions to improve their yields. They could lease small drones from the labs for a nominal fee, and I’m willing to bet that some savvy young men and women working on these farms will be keen to learn a new set of skills that could lead to an increase in income. We’re also keen to work with local drone consultants or local companies to enable them to expand their services to include agriculture. The key, either way, is to design and deliver effective trainings to local farmers, consultants and/or companies while providing each with long-term support through the Flying Labs. 


Thanks to colleagues from WeRobotics for feedback on an earlier version of this postI’m keen to receive additional input from iRevolution readers. 

What Happens When the Media Sends Drone Teams to Disasters?

Media companies like AFP, CNN and others are increasingly capturing dramatic aerial footage following major disasters around the world. These companies can be part of the solution when it comes to adding value to humanitarian efforts on the ground. But they can also be a part of the problem.

screenshot-2016-10-26-04-51-44

Media teams are increasingly showing up to disasters with small drones (UAVs) to document the damage. They’re at times the first with drones on the scene and thus able to quickly capture dramatic aerial footage of the devastation below. These media assets lead to more views and thus traffic on news websites, which increases the probability that more readers click on ads. Cue Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, my favorite book whilst in high school.

Aerial footage can also increase situational awareness for disaster responders if that footage is geo-located. Labeling individual scenes in video footage with the name of the towns or villages being flown over would go a long way. This is what I asked one journalist to do in the aftermath of the Nepal Earthquake after he sent me dozens of his aerial videos. I also struck up an informal agreement with CNN to gain access to their raw aerial footage in future disasters. On a related note, I was pleased when my CNN contact expressed an interest in following the Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct.

In an ideal world, there would be a network of professional drone journalists with established news agencies that humanitarian organizations could quickly contact for geo-tagged video footage after major disasters to improve their situational awareness. Perhaps the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ) could be part of the solution. In any case, the network would either have its own Code of Conduct or follow the humanitarian one. Perhaps they could post their footage and pictures directly to the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) Crisis Map. Either way, the media has long played an important role in humanitarian disasters, and their increasing use of drones makes them even more valuable partners to increase situational awareness.

The above scenario describes the ideal world. But the media can (and has) been part of the problem as well. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the saying goes. Increased competition between media companies to be the first to capture dramatic aerial video that goes viral means that they may take shortcuts. They may not want to waste time getting formal approval from a country’s civil aviation authority. In Nepal after the earthquake, one leading company’s drone team was briefly detained by authorities for not getting official permission.

screenshot-2016-10-26-05-07-05

Media companies may not care to engage with local communities. They may be on a tight deadline and thus dispense with getting community buy-in. They may not have the time to reassure traumatized communities about the robots flying overhead. Media companies may overlook or ignore potential data privacy repercussions of publishing their aerial videos online. They may also not venture out to isolated and rural areas, thus biasing the video footage towards easy-to-access locations.

So how do we in the humanitarian space make media drone teams part of the solution rather than part of the problem? How do we make them partners in these efforts? One way forward is to start a conversation with these media teams and their relevant networks. Perhaps we start with a few informal agreements and learn by doing. If anyone is interested in working with me on this and/or has any suggestions on how to make this happen, please do get in touch. Thanks!

Why Robots Are Flying Over Zanzibar and the Source of the Nile

An expedition in 1858 revealed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. We found ourselves on the shores of Africa’s majestic lake this October, a month after a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck Tanzania’s Kagera Region. Hundreds were injured and dozens killed. This was the biggest tragedy in decades for the peaceful lakeside town of Bukoba. The Ministry of Home Affairs invited WeRobotics to support the recovery and reconstruction efforts by carrying out aerial surveys of the affected areas. 

2016-10-10-08-14-57-hdr

The mission of WeRobotics is to build local capacity for the safe and effective use of appropriate robotics solutions. We do this by co-creating local robotics labs that we call Flying Labs. We use these Labs to transfer the professional skills and relevant robotics solutions to outstanding local partners. Our explicit focus on capacity building explains why we took the opportunity whilst in Kagera to train two Tanzanian colleagues. Khadija and Yussuf joined us from the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). They were both wonderful to work with and quick learners too. We look forward to working with them and other partners to co-create our Flying Labs in Tanzania. More on this in a future post.

Aerial Surveys of Kagera Region After The Earthquake

We surveyed multiple areas in the region based on the priorities of our local partners as well as reports provided by local villagers. We used the Cumulus One UAV from our technology partner DanOffice to carry out the flights. The Cumulus has a stated 2.5 hour flight time and 50 kilometer radio range. We’re using software from our partner Pix4D to process the 3,000+ very high resolution images captured during our 2 days around Bukoba.

img_6753

Above, Khadija and Yussuf on the left with a local engineer and a local member of the community on the right, respectfully. The video below shows how the Cumulus takes off and lands. The landing is automatic and simply involves the UAV stalling and gently gliding to the ground. 

We engaged directly with local communities before our flights to explain our project and get their permissions to fly. Learn more about our Code of Conduct.

img_6807

Aerial mapping with fixed-wing UAVs can identify large-scale damage over large areas and serve as a good base map for reconstruction. A lot of the damage, however, can be limited to large cracks in walls, which cannot be seen with nadir (vertical) imagery. We thus flew over some areas using a Parrot Bebop2 to capture oblique imagery and to get closer to the damage. We then took dozens of geo-tagged images from ground-level with our phones in order to ground-truth the aerial imagery.

img_6964

We’re still processing the resulting imagery so the results below are simply the low resolution previews of one (out of three) surveys we carried out.

ortho1_bukoba

Both Khadija and Yussuf were very quick learners and a real delight to work with. Below are more pictures documenting our recent work in Kagera. You can follow all our trainings and projects live via our Twitter feed (@werobotics) and our Facebook page. Sincerest thanks to both Linx Global Intelligence and UR Group for making our work in Kagera possible. Linx provided the introduction to the Ministry of Home Affairs while the UR Group provided invaluable support on the logistics and permissions.

img_6827

Yussuf programming the flight plan of the Cumulus

img_6875

Khadija is setting up the Cumulus for a full day of flying around Bukoba area

img_6756

Khadija wants to use aerial robots to map Zanzibar, which is where she’s from

img_6787

Community engagement is absolutely imperative

img_6791

Local community members inspecting the Parrot’s Bebop2

From the shores of Lake Victoria to the coastlines of Zanzibar

Together with the outstanding drone team from the State University of Zanzibar, we mapped Jozani Forest and part of the island’s eastern coastline. This allowed us to further field-test our long-range platform and to continue our local capacity building efforts following our surveys near the Ugandan border. Here’s a picture-based summary of our joint efforts.

2016-10-14-09-09-48

Flying Labs Coordinator Yussuf sets up the Cumulus UAV for flight

2016-10-13-14-44-27-hdr

Turns out selfie sticks are popular in Zanzibar and kids love robots.

2016-10-14-10-01-25

Khairat from Team SUZA is operating the mobile air traffic control tower. Team SUZA uses senseFly eBees for other projects on the island.

2016-10-15-09-03-10

Another successful takeoff, courtesy of Flying Labs Coordinator Yussuf.

2016-10-15-11-11-20

We flew the Cumulus at a speed of 65km/h and at an altitude of 265m.

2016-10-15-13-11-13

The Cumulus flew for 2 hours, making this our longest UAV flight in Zanzibar so far.

2016-10-15-10-38-51-hdr

Khadija from Team SUZA explains to local villagers how and why she maps Zanzibar using flying robots.

2016-10-15-17-26-23

Tide starts rushing back in. It’s important to take the moon into account when mapping coastlines, as the tide can change drastically during a single flight and thus affect the stitching process.

The content above is cross-posted from WeRobotics.

Using Swimming Robots to Warn Villages of Himalayan Tsunamis

Cross-posted from National Geographic 

Climate change is having a devastating impact on the Himalaya. On the Ngozumpa glacier, one of the largest and longest in the region, hundreds of supraglacial lakes dot the glacier surface. One lake in particular is known for its continuous volume purges on an annual basis. Near the start of the monsoon this summer, in less than 48 hours, it loses enough water to fill over 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools. To make matters worse, these glacial lakes act like cancers: they consume Himalayan glaciers from the inside out, making some of them melt twice as fast. As a result, villages down-valley from these glacial lakes are becoming increasingly prone to violent flash floods, which locals call Himalayan Tsunamis.

To provide early warnings of these flash floods requires that we collect a lot more geophysical and hydrologic information on these glacial lakes. So scientists like Ulyana (co-author) are racing to understand exactly how these glacial lakes form and grow, and how they’re connected to each other through seemingly secret subterranean channels. We need to know how deep and steep these lakes are, what the lake floors look like and of what materials they are composed (e.g., mud, rock, bare ice).

Ulyana, her colleagues and a small local team of Sherpa have recently started using autonomous swimming robots to automatically map lake floors and look for cracks that may trigger mountain tsunamis. Using robotics to do this is both faster and more accurate than having humans take the measurements. What’s more, robots are significantly safer. Indeed, even getting near these lakes (let alone in them!) is dangerous enough due to unpredictable collapses of ice called calving and large boulders rolling off of surrounding ice cliffs and into the lakes below. Just imagine being on a small inflatable boat floating on ice-cold water when one of those icefalls happen.

We (Ulyana and Patrick) are actively looking to utilize diving robots as well—specifically the one in the video footage below. This OpenROV Trident robot will enable us to get to the bottom of these glacial lakes to identify deepening ‘hotspots’ before they’re visible from the lake’s surface or from the air. Our plan next year is to pool our efforts, bringing diving, swimming and flying robots to Nepal so we can train our partners—Sherpas and local engineers—on how to use these robotic solutions to essentially take the ‘pulse’ of the changing Himalaya. This way they’ll be able to educate as well as warn nearby villages before the next mountain floods hit.

We plan to integrate these efforts with WeRobotics (co-founded by co-author Patrick) and in particular with the local robotics lab that WeRobotics is already setting up in Kathmandu. This lab has a number of flying robots and trained Nepali engineers. To learn more about how these flying robots are being used in Nepal, check out the pictures here.

We’ll soon be adding diving robots to the robotic lab’s portfolio in Nepal thanks to WeRobotics’s partnership with OpenROV. What’s more, all WeRobotics labs have an expressed goal of spinning off  local businesses that offer robotics as services. Thus, the robotics start-up that spins off from our lab in Nepal will offer a range of mapping services using both flying and diving robots. As such, we want to create local jobs that use robotics (jobs that local partners want!) so that our Nepali friends can make a career out of saving their beautiful mountains.  

Please do get in touch if you’d like to get involved or support in other ways! Email us ulyana@scienceinthewild.com and patrick@werobotics.org

Humanitarian Robotics: The $15 Billion Question?

The International Community spends around $25 Billion per year to provide life saving assistance to people devastated by wars and natural disasters. According to the United Nations, this is $15 Billion short of what is urgently needed; that’s $15 Billion short every year. So how do we double the impact of humanitarian efforts and do so at half the cost?

wp1

Perhaps one way to deal with this stunning 40% gap in funding is to scale the positive impact of the aid industry. How? By radically increasing the efficiency (time-savings) and productivity (cost-savings) of humanitarian efforts. This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous Robotics come in. The World Economic Forum refers to this powerful new combination as the 4th Industrial Revolution. Amazon, Facebook, Google and other Top 100 Fortune companies are powering this revolution with billions of dollars in R&D. So whether we like it or not, the robotics arms race will impact the humanitarian industry just like it is impacting other industries: through radical gains in efficiency & productivity.

Take Amazon, for example. The company uses some 30,000 Kiva robots in its warehouses across the globe (pictured below). These ground-based, terrestrial robotics solutions have already reduced Amazon’s operating expenses by no less than 20%. And each new warehouse that integrates these self-driving robots will save the company around $22 million in fulfillment expenses alone. According to Deutsche Bank, “Bringing the Kivas to the 100 or so distribution centers that still haven’t implemented the tech would save Amazon a further $2.5 billion.” As is well known, the company is also experimenting with aerial robotics (drones). A recent study by PwC (PDF) notes that “the labor costs and services that can be replaced by the use of these devices account for about $127 billion today, and that the main sectors that will be affected are infrastructure, agriculture, and transportation.” Meanwhile, Walmart and others are finally starting to enter the robotics arms race. The former is using ground-based robots to ship apparel and is actively exploring the use of aerial robotics to “photograph ware-house shelves as part of an effort to reduce the time it takes to catalogue inventory.”

Amazon Robotics

What makes this new industrial revolution different from those that preceded it is the fundamental shift from manually controlled technologies—a world we’re all very familiar with—to a world powered by increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems—an entirely different kind of world. One might describe this as a shift towards extreme automation. And whether extreme automation powers aerial robotics, terrestrial robotics or maritime robots (pictured below) is besides the point. The disruption here is the one-way shift towards increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems.

All_Robotics

Why does this fundamental shift matter to those of us working in humanitarian aid? For at least two reasons: the collection of humanitarian information and the transportation of humanitarian cargo. Whether we like it or not, the rise of increasingly autonomous systems will impact both the way we collect data and transport cargo by making these processes faster, safer and more cost-effective. Naturally, this won’t happen overnight: disruption is a process.

Humanitarian organizations cannot stop the 4th Industrial Revolution. But they can apply their humanitarian principles and ideals to inform how autonomous robotics are used in humanitarian contexts. Take the importance of localizing aid, for example, a priority that gained unanimous support at the recent World Humanitarian Summit. If we apply this priority to humanitarian robotics, the question becomes: how can access to appropriate robotics solutions be localized so that local partners can double the positive impact of their own humanitarian efforts? In other words, how do we democratize the 4th Industrial Revolution? Doing so may be an important step towards closing the $15 billion gap. It could render the humanitarian industry more efficient and productive while localizing aid and creating local jobs in new industries.

This is What Happens When You Send Flying Robots to Nepal

In September 2015, we were invited by our partner Kathmandu University to provide them and other key stakeholders with professional hands-on training to help them scale the positive impact of their humanitarian efforts following the devastating earthquakes. More specifically, our partners were looking to get trained on how to use aerial robotics solutions (drones) safely and effectively to support their disaster risk reduction and early recovery efforts. So we co-created Kathmandu Flying Labs to ensure the long-term sustainability of our capacity building efforts. Kathmandu Flying Labs is kindly hosted by our lead partner, Kathmandu University (KU). This is already well known. What is hardly known, however, is what happened after we left the country.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 5.17.58 PM

Our Flying Labs are local innovation labs used to transfer both relevant skills and appropriate robotics solutions sustainably to outstanding local partners who need these the most. The co-creation of these Flying Labs include both joint training and applied projects customized to meet the specific needs & priorities of our local partners. In Nepal, we provided both KU and Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) with the professional hands-on training they requested. What’s more, thanks to our Technology Partner DJI, we were able to transfer 10 DJI Phantoms (aerial robotics solutions) to our Nepali partners (6 to KU and 4 to KLL). In addition, thanks to another Technology Partner, Pix4D, we provided both KU and KLL with free licenses of the Pix4D software and relevant training so they could easily process and analyze the imagery they captured using their DJI platforms. Finally, we carried out joint aerial surveys of Panga, one of the towns hardest-hit by the 2015 Earthquake. Joint projects are an integral element of our capacity building efforts. These projects serve to reinforce the training and enable our local partners to create immediate added value using aerial robotics. This important phase of Kathmandu Flying Labs is already well documented.

WP15

What is less known, however, is what KU did with the technology and software after we left Nepal. Indeed, the results of this next phase of the Flying Labs process (during which we provide remote support as needed) has not been shared widely, until now. KU’s first order of business was to actually finish the joint project we had started with them in Panga. It turns out that our original aerial surveys there were actually incomplete, as denoted by the red circle below.

Map_Before

But because we had taken the time to train our partners and transfer both our skills and the robotics technologies, the outstanding team at KU’s School of Engineering returned to Panga to get the job done without needing any further assistance from us at WeRobotics. They filled the gap:

Map_After

The KU team didn’t stop there. They carried out a detailed aerial survey of a nearby hospital to create the 3D model below (at the hospital’s request). They also created detailed 3D models of the university and a nearby temple that had been partially damaged by the 2015 earthquakes. Furthermore, they carried out additional disaster damage assessments in Manekharka and Sindhupalchowk, again entirely on their own.

Yesterday, KU kindly told us about their collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Together, they are conducting a study to determine the ecological flow of Kaligandaki river, one of the largest rivers in Nepal. According to KU, the river’s ecosystem is particularly “complex as it includes aquatic invertebrates, flora, vertebrates, hydrology, geo-morphology, hydraulics, sociology-cultural and livelihood aspects.” The Associate Dean at KU’s School of Engineering wrote “We are deploying both traditional and modern technology to get the information from ground including UAVs. In this case we are using the DJI Phantoms,” which “reduced largely our field investigation time. The results are interesting and promising.” I look forward to sharing these results in a future blog post.

kali-gandaki-river

Lastly, KU’s Engineering Department has integrated the use of the robotics platforms directly into their courses, enabling Geomatics Engineering students to use the robots as part of their end-of-semester projects. In sum, KU has done truly outstanding work following our capacity building efforts and deserve extensive praise. (Alas, it seems that KLL has made little to no use of the aerial technologies or the software since our training 10 months ago).

Several months after the training in Nepal, we were approached by a British company that needed aerial surveys of specific areas for a project that the Nepal Government had contracted them to carry out. So they wanted to hire us for this project. We proposed instead that they hire our partners at Kathmandu Flying Labs since the latter are more than capable to carry out the surveys themselves. In other words, we actively drive business opportunities to Flying Labs partners. Helping to create local jobs and local businesses around robotics as a service is one of our key goals and the final phase of the Flying Labs framework.

So when we heard last week that USAID’s Global Development Lab was looking to hire a foreign company to carry out aerial surveys for a food security project in Nepal, we jumped on a call with USAID to let them know about the good work carried out by Kathmandu Flying Labs. We clearly communicated to our USAID colleagues that there are perfectly qualified Nepali pilots who can carry out the same aerial surveys. USAID’s Development Lab will be meeting with Kathmandu Flying Labs during their next visit in September.

thumb_IMG_4591_1024

On a related note, one of the participants who we trained in September was hired soon after by Build Change to support the organization’s shelter programs by producing Digital Surface Models (DSMs) from aerial images captured using DJI platforms. More recently, we heard from another student who emailed us with the following: “I had an opportunity to participate in the Humanitarian UAV Training mission in Nepal. It’s because of this training I was able learn how to fly drones and now I can conduct aerial Survey on my own with any hardware.  I would like to thank you and your team for the knowledge transfer sessions.”

This same student (who graduated from KU) added: “The workshop that your team did last time gave us the opportunity to learn how to fly and now we are handling some professional works along with major research. My question to you is ‘How can young graduates from developing countries like ours strengthen their capacity and keep up with their passion on working with technology like UAVs […]? The immediate concern for a graduate in Nepal is a simple job where he can make some money for him and prove to his family that he has done something in return for all the investments they have been doing upon him […]’.

KU campus sign

This is one of several reasons why our approach at WeRobotics is not limited to scaling the positive impact of local humanitarian, development, environmental and public health projects. Our demand-driven Flying Labs model goes the extra (aeronautical) mile to deliberately create local jobs and businesses. Our Flying Labs partners want to make money off the skills and technologies they gain from WeRobotics. They want to take advantage of the new career opportunities afforded by these new AI-powered robotics solutions. And they want their efforts to be sustainable.

In Nepal, we are now interviewing the KU graduate who posed the question above because we’re looking to hire an outstanding and passionate Coordinator for Kathmandu Flying Labs. Indeed, there is much work to be done as we are returning to Nepal in coming months for three reasons: 1) Our local partners have asked us to provide them with the technology and training they need to carry out large scale mapping efforts using long-distance fixed-wing platforms; 2) A new local partner needs to create very high-resolution topographical maps of large priority areas for disaster risk reduction and planning efforts, which requires the use of a fixed-wing platform; 3) We need to meet with KU’s Business Incubation Center to explore partnership opportunities since we are keen to help incubate local businesses that offer robotics as a service in Nepal.