Category Archives: Drones/UAVs

Testing Agile Cargo Drone Delivery to Improve Healthcare

Hard-to-reach communities need more than paved roads to access healthcare. They need both affordable and convenient transportation to and from local healthcare providers. If it costs too much to get to the clinic, then they’ll never get to the clinic. If it takes too much time to get to the clinic, then they’ll never get to the clinic. Why? Because their choices are limited. They may be too sick to spend hours traveling back and forth to a clinic. They may not have the option of taking time off work or cannot afford to forgo the income. Or they may have family responsibilities that limit how long they can be away from home.

Hard-to-reach communities need more than paved roads to access healthcare. They need affordable and convenient transportation to and from local healthcare providers.

Discussions around the last mile typically focus on the challenge of delivering medicines to local healthcare facilities rather than caring for the patient directly. So what would totally agile, peer-to-peer cargo drone delivery look like?

Cargo drones that deliver medical supplies always follow predetermined routes. They transport medicines from one fixed point to another—regional hospitals to remote clinics, for example. But what if Community Health Workers (CHWs) need additional medicines while visiting remote communities? They may not know exactly what they need ahead of time or they’re unable to carry a wide range of medicines with them across rough terrain. Worse, what if CHWs aren’t available and patients have difficulty getting to the clinic or to the pharmacy?

While discussions around the use of cargo drones for medical deliveries typically focus on “long range” deliveries (100km+), smaller cargo drones can also play an important role in literal last-mile deliveries, the last 1,600 meters.

To explore this further, we invited our new technology partner, Dronistics, to join us and Dominican Republic Flying Labs in the remote mountains of Montasitos. Using large, long-range drones to make one-mile deliveries isn’t a good use of resources. These drones typically need more space to land and require pre-approved fixed-routes. In contrast, because Dronistics is more of a flying ball than a traditional drone, therefore can be safely operated and can deliver directly to individuals within a one-mile radius. This approach could help Flying Labs democratize cargo drone deliveries, enabling remote communities to both send and receive deliveries.

This exploration in the Dominican Republic was the first time that Dronistics field tested their solution outside of Switzerland. They learned a lot from the experience and were very good about carefully documenting all of our feedback. Equally important, they were a great team player; very respectful of local partners and communities, humble, thoughtful and keen to learn. These human qualities are more important to us than any startup’s drone technology. As such, we’re already exploring further collaboration between Dronistics and several other Flying Labs around the world.

In the meantime, we sincerely thank the Municipality of Montasitos along with local communities for their time and their kind welcome. We also thank the Centro de Innovacion De Drones, Parque Cibernatico, Dronistics and Pfizer for their generous partnership and support on this project. We would also like to thank NCCR Robotics that supports Dronistics through an NCCR Robotics Spin Fund Grant.


To learn more about the use of cargo drones in public health, please see our dedicated online course on the topic. And explore previous cargo drone projects run by WeRobotics and Flying Labs. Note that the Dronistics flights in the DR were for demo and exploratory purposes only, no official deliveries were made.

Building Cargo Drone Expertise in Papua New Guinea

WeRobotics was recently asked by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to organize a training on medical cargo drones in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The purpose of the training was to engage key stakeholders on the opportunities and challenges of using cargo drones in the wake of PNG’s most recent polio outbreak. An important component of the training was a hands-on demo of cargo drone deliveries. There were three key reasons for making this operational demo part of the training: 1) introduce stakeholders to cargo drone technology and standard operating procedures; 2) test how quickly a cargo drone team could be deployed; 3) test how quickly flight permissions could be secured from PNG’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). WeRobotics was given 10 weeks to implement the project. It was completed in 8 weeks.

WeRobotics partnered with two outstanding groups who ensured the project’s complete success: Soli Consultancy and Redwing Labs India. Soli Consultancy are the co-founders of PNG Flying Labs while Redwing Labs is a founding partner of India Flying Labs. Soli Consultancy has extensive experience in aviation regulations and took the lead on securing the flight permissions for the CDC project. They also took the lead on the logistics for the workshop. Redwing Labs is a cargo drone company from India that was recently selected Techstars USA, the biggest VC accelerator program in the world with an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Both Soli and Redwing went well above and beyond to ensure that the extremely tight timeline would be met. The CDC team in PNG lent invaluable support to both Soli and Redwing throughout the very busy 7 weeks leading up to the training and cargo drone flights.

Credit: National Department of Health

Around 40 stakeholders participated in the workshop, representing an important mix of expertise from public health, aviation, and private sectors. The workshop agenda is available here (PDF). The first session comprised talks from senior health officials from PNG, Mr. Berry Ropa and Dr. Mathias Bauri from the National Department of Health. Each speaker reported on the very real difficulties in reaching remote communities in PNG. They both noted that some communities can only be reached by helicopter (costing around USD 2,500 / hour). This was followed by an open discussion between participants reflecting on related challenges and potential ways that drones might be able to address or overcome some of these challenges.

I had the pleasure of leading Session 2. The purpose of this session was to give all participants a solid background in medical cargo drones including use-cases, technologies, deployments, ethical issues, lessons learned and best practices. This 1.5 hour presentation was followed by an open discussion by all stakeholders. The session included a demo of cargo drone boxes by my good colleague Dr. Timothy Amukele and the first public announcement of the launch of PNG Flying Labs, which was very warmly welcomed by local stakeholders. Following the presentation, an open question and answer session allowed participants to move the conversations forward vis-à-vis the PNG context.

Session three was a design-thinking session with a total of 5 breakout groups. Each group was asked to identify specific health projects that they believed could benefit from the use of drones. This meant identify the key health need, where geographically this need was greatest and which stakeholders would be best placed to implement the use of cargo drone deliveries in that context. Participants were then asked to select the one project they considered most compelling for immediate implementation. The results were particularly informative and some detailed enough to develop an initial concept note and proposal for.

In the fourth session, I provided an overview of business models, cost structures, sustainability strategies, and different methodologies to assess the cost-benefit of introducing cargo drone deliveries in a given context. This 45-minute presentation was followed by another open discussion during which participants connected the ideas presented to the PNG context. The fifth and final session was run by Redwing and served as an introduction to drone regulations, safety, standard operating procedures, fail-safe mechanisms and more.

The cargo drone demo day was scheduled for the day after the workshop at Pacific Adventist University. A backup day was set aside in case of rain. Sure enough, there where strong winds with heavy downpour that morning, so the demo day was rescheduled to the following day. Drones can certainly be made more weather proof, this is not a major technical challenge. The question has more to do with cost, since technical modifications and add-on’s necessarily require engineering resources. That said, as one local public health expert at the workshop noted, when there’s a heavy downpour like this in PNG, even 4WD cars will get stuck in muddy roads.

The original plan for the cargo drone demo was to fly from the university to Sogeri National High School through a remote mountainous terrain 17 kilometers away and with an elevation difference of some 1,000 feet. While Redwing complied with regulatory requirements for flight approvals, CASA did not approve flights Beyond Visual Line of Site (BVLOS). They informed us that an American cargo drone company had recently crashed their drone in PNG as part of a project with an international health organization. As such, CASA preferred that the Redwing flights all be conducted within Visual Line of Site, or VLOS. PNG Flying Labs and Soli Consultancy are now following-up with CASA to continue working towards an unmanned aircraft operator’s certificate.

Given that only VLOS flights were permitted, it was decided that the drone would take off from the university, fly large loops within visual line of sight and cover a distance of 17 kilometers in order to simulate the original flight plan displayed above. Vaccine vials were placed in the cargo box along with multiple icepacks and a temperature data logger. The cargo box was then fastened to the cargo drone. The total weight carried was around 680 grams. The temperature going in was around 1.5C.

The Redwing drone is a VTOL or hybrid drone, meaning that it takes off and lands vertically but then transitions to fly like plane. The advantage of hybrid drones is that they can take off and land in narrow places but still have the range of a fixed-wing drone when they transition to forward flight. The demonstration went flawlessly, with the drone covering 24 km in approximately 20 minutes. The cargo drone flew at an average speed of 75 km per hour and at an altitude of 120 meters. The temperature of the cargo was around 7.5C after landing even though there was very minimal insulation. While Redwing did both the takeoff and landings manually, they noted that both could be done autonomously as well regardless of the cargo weight.

Credit: Laurence Korup, Oceanian Multimedia

Sincerest thanks to the following organizations for their partnership and trust: CDC, Gates Foundation, Soli Consulting, Redwing Labs and CASA. We’re very pleased to have launched Papua New Guinea Flying Labs, which is part of the growing South Pacific Flying Labs network. PNG Flying Labs will be introduced more formally in coming weeks and we expect Vanuatu Flying Labs to join the South Pacific Network in the very near future.

WeRobotics is also exploring a number of other medical cargo drone projects in Nepal, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Uganda and the Dominican Republic. We’ll be sure to share our lessons learned and best practices for those projects that do move forward. So stay tuned for more updates throughout 2019. In the meantime, learn how South Pacific Flying Labs is using cargo drones to help reduce Dengue fever in Fiji, and how Peru Flying Labs and Dominican Republic Flying Labs are using cargo drones for other public health use cases. Also, be sure to sign up for our upcoming online course on Medical Cargo Drones in Public Health.

How Local Drone Pilots Are Reducing Dengue Fever

The dengue fever outbreak in Fiji in 2014 was one of the region’s largest known outbreaks of the mosquito-borne infection. Scientists studying the outbreak believe climate change was a contributing factor: more flooding results in more areas of standing water for longer periods—perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. According to the World Health Organization’s Regional Office, the islands of the South Pacific are “some of the most vulnerable places on the planet to health effects of climate change.” Unfortunately, existing tools to control these mosquitoes such as insecticide spraying are not efficient and have failed to eliminate dengue as a public health concern. Worldwide, an estimated 390 million human dengue infections occur every year. This explains why ministries of health in the South Pacific expect larger outbreaks. In fact, Fiji experienced another outbreak of dengue fever this year, which once again prompted urgent calls for more effective and preventative solutions.

One such solution may be the use of Wolbachia-treated mosquitos. Wolbachia is a naturally occurring bacteria that prevents mosquitos from transmitting diseases like Zika and dengue. This explains why our partners at the World Mosquito Program (WMP) and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services have been releasing Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos in Fiji. This is done be driving around a town or village with canisters of Wolbachia mosquitoes (W-mosquitoes for short). The driver pulls over by the side of the road every few minutes to release one canister at a time. Over time, Wolbachia becomes established in the local mosquito population. When most of the mosquito population have Wolbachia, local communities in Fiji should be at lower risk of getting dengue, Zika and chikungunya.

Releasing Wolbachia mosquitos “by car” presents a number of challenges, however. First, during the rainy and cyclone seasons, many roads become unusable while pools of standing water breed more mosquitos. What’s more, mosquitos that are released by car may not be uniformly distributed over an area but rather constrained by the local road network. As such, a significant amount of work and time has to go into planning the best routes for cars given these fixed constraints. Lastly, not everyone lives next to a road and so are potentially excluded from public health interventions.

Countries in the region experience severe flooding during Cyclone season

This explains why WMP teamed up with WeRobotics earlier this year. WeRobotics engineers have been busy developing an aerial release mechanism that can be attached to a drone. Combining both the aerial and ground-based release of W-mosquitos is expected to be a lot more effective. The aerial release mechanism can store up to 160,000 W-mosquitos at 5 degrees Celsius and release 200 mosquitos at a time every 50 meters. This is enough to cover an area of four square kilometers. Aerial releases are much faster than ground releases (no traffic, stop lights, pedestrians, etc.) and, unlike cars, drones don’t burn fossil fuels. A drone can cover an area of 10km2 in a couple hours while mosquito releases by car over the same area would require several days. In addition, the use of drones provides far more homogeneous releases and better coverage. Another bonus: drone routes are much easier to plan than car routes.

The mechanism is airborne and ready to release 200 W-mosquitos at a time

A fully operational prototype of the release mechanism is currently being piloted in the South Pacific after 5 months of local community engagement and awareness raising. WeRobotics engineers have already trained local drone pilots with South Pacific Flying Labs and Drone Services Fiji on how to operate the drone and the release mechanism safely and effectively. As such, the local team at Pacific Flying Labs is now taking the lead in piloting the drone and aerial releases as part WMP’s public health intervention in Fiji.

Building local capacity is central to the mission of WeRobotics as is creating local ownership of health, humanitarian, development and environmental projects. The localization of this expertise and technology through the global Flying Labs network leads to more sustainable and impactful projects.

An aerially-released mosquito finds their way to the arm of a WMP colleague

When the pilot project completes this week, South Pacific Flying Labs and partners will have released around half-a-million W-mosquitos. WMP has engaged the help of local community members to host a large network of mosquito traps across the release area to determine how widely, quickly and uniformly these mosquitos have dispersed compared to ground-released mosquitos. W-mosquitos can be distinguished from others because the former have each been dusted with yellow-colored dye. Once our friends at WMP complete their evaluation following of trial, we’ll be able to quantify the added value of complementing ground-based releases with aerial releases. Future trials will seek to optimize the release methods so that mosquito deployments can be achieved across larger areas.


South Pacific Flying Labs is funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The drone component of the mosquito project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge. Earlier this year, WeRobotics tested the use of drones for mosquito release in Brazil using a completely different prototype release mechanism.

 

New! Online Training for Humanitarian Drone Missions

We’re very pleased to announce the launch of the WeRobotics Online Training Institute. Training is absolutely central to the work and mission of WeRobotics. To date, we have provided our professional trainings exclusively in person. We’ve given these trainings to a numerous professionals across many organizations including the World Food Program (WFP), UN Development Program (UNDP), UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), local universities and many national & local stakeholders including National Disaster Management Organizations (NDMOs) in Peru, Myanmar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Dominican Republic, Maldives, Fiji, Seychelles and beyond.

We’re thrilled to be teaming up with our friends at TechChange to provide this training. Their highly dynamic online training platform is second-to-none. Just last year alone, TechChange trained over 7,000 people from 155 countries on their platform. We’ve been huge fans of TechChange and are grateful to finally have the opportunity to work both with their outstanding team and unique approach to online learning.

Drones in Humanitarian Action

While in-person trainings will absolutely remain central to our work and mission, we’ve realized that a substantial component of these trainings can just as well be provided online and scaled more easily this way. The reason for this is simple: technology is at most 10% of the solution in humanitarian emergencies and many other contexts including public health and environmental protection, for example. Technology is certainly an absolutely crucial 10% of the solution—serving as a multiplier effect—but without a strong understanding of the tasks necessary to use this technology safely, responsibly and effectively (the other 90%), you run the danger of multiplying nonsense and becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. As such we’ve decided to invest a considerable amount of time and energy to convert our offline trainings into online courses in order to train more people on how to use drones more responsibly across a range of sectors.

Our very first online course will focus on Drones in Humanitarian Action: From Coordination to Deployments. The course will be identical to the trainings that we’ve provided to new and seasoned humanitarian professionals around the world. Drones in Humanitarian Action will give participants the training they need to be an important part of the solution during future disaster risk management efforts. The training is instrumental for anyone already engaged or expecting to support disaster response efforts. The course will be of equal interest to participants who want to better understand what it takes to lead humanitarian drone missions safely, responsibly and effectively. As such, the training is ideal for existing drone pilots including pilots working in the commercial drone space. That said, no background in disaster response or drones is required for this foundational course.

Overview of Humanitarian Drone Training

Our online training represents the first ever online professional course specifically dedicated to humanitarian applications of drones. The 7-week training comprises 7 key modules, which cover the following important topics:

  • Drone Technologies and Mission Planning
  • Mapping Drones and Information Products
  • Cargo Drones and New Solutions
  • Humanitarian Principles and Codes of Conduct
  • Survey of Drone Deployments in Humanitarian Aid
  • Humanitarian Drone Missions: Lessons Learned & Best Practices
  • Drones in Humanitarian Action: Localization and Coordination
  • Aerial Data Interpretation and Analysis
  • Future Trends in Drone Technologies and Applications

The online training will also include a dedicated module on Technical Basics of Drone Pilot Certification, which will cover the following topics:

  • Rules of the Air
  • Safety
  • Airspace
  • Flight Permissions
  • Basic Chart Reading
  • Meteorology
  • Aircraft Knowledge
  • Airmanship

The WeRobotics training on Drones in Humanitarian Action are built on the first ever trainings on humanitarian drones provided by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) between 2015-2016. These professional trainings were given by WeRobotics co-founders Dr. Patrick Meier and Dr. Andrew Schroeder, and included trainees from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN/OCHA), WFP, International Organization for Migration (IOM), Direct Relief,, NetHope, Medair, Global Medic, USAID, FEMA, AAAS, MIT, European Commission, ACF International, Greenpeace and many more.

Trainers and Expertise

The online training on Drones in Humanitarian Action was prepared by the AidRobotics Team at WeRobotics. The team, Joel Kaiser, Dr. Patrick Meier and Dr. Andrew Schroeder, brings together over 40 years of experience in humanitarian aid and emergencies. Patrick will serve as primary lead for the Online Training.

Joel Kaiser: Over 15 years of field experience in humanitarian assistance and disaster response in over a dozen countries and including 4 years pioneering the humanitarian use of drones. Joel has extensive experience in humanitarian coordination, and advanced studies in emergency management. Prior to WeRobotics, Joel worked as an emergency response specialist with several different humanitarian agencies including the Canadian Red Cross, Food for the Hungry and Medair. Has led disaster response teams in many humanitarian crises including Haiti, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Iraq and Syria. Since 2013 these responses have involved the use of drones to improve operational decision-making. Holds an MA in International Development with a focus on Complex Emergencies from Simon Fraser University. Was one of the lead experts running the recent humanitarian drones workshop in Malawi with UNICEF and earlier with WFP in Myanmar. Joel is on the core team of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) and has played a key role in developing the International Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct.

Dr. Patrick Meier: Over 15 years of experience in humanitarian technology. Spearheaded the coordination of drones in the aftermath of Category 5 Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and the 8.0 Earthquake in Nepal. Co-directed the WeRobotics workshops on humanitarian drones for UNICEF in Malawi and for WFP in Peru, Myanmar and the DR. Coordinated and evaluated cargo drone field tests in Peru and the DR. Spearheaded the Open AI Challenge with the World Bank to use AI for the automated analysis of aerial imagery and previously directed applied research on related projects including a year-long study for the Red Cross on the use of drones for disaster risk management. Served as long-time consultant to the World Bank’s UAVs for Resilience Program. Founded the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) and previously developed & provided hands-on professional trainings on humanitarian drone missions to a wide range of humanitarian professionals. Also co-authored the most comprehensive report on Drones in Humanitarian Action and played a key role developing the first humanitarian drone trainings and the International Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct. Received advanced degrees in International Affairs from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Authored the book, Digital Humanitarians, which has been praised by experts from the UN, Red Cross, World Bank, USAID, DfID, Harvard, MIT, Oxford and more.

Dr. Andrew Schroeder: Over 10 years of experience in humanitarian and public health emergencies, logistics and disaster response, with extensive expertise in data-analytics, geospatial data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Internationally recognized leader in GIS, data science and applied epidemiology for humanitarian aid and global health. Directly engaged in relief efforts following numerous disasters including Cyclone Nargis (Myanmar), Haiti Earthquake, Japan Earthquake/Tsunami, Typhoon Haiyan (Philippines), Ebola Outbreak (Sierra Leone and Liberia), Nepal Earthquake, Hurricanes Matthew, Maria, Irma and Havey (Caribbean) and Wildfires (California). Founded the Nethope’s UAV Working Group. Co-directed the WeRobotics workshops on humanitarian drone for WFP and co-directed UNDP drones for disaster resilience project in the Maldives. On the core team of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) and previously provided hands-on professional trainings on humanitarian drone missions to a wide range of humanitarian professionals. Played a key role in developing of the International Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct. Received advanced degrees in social analysis and public policy from New York University and the University of Michigan.

How To Register and More

The online training on Drones in Humanitarian Action will be given in June and July 2018. Please add your email address here if you are interested in joining this upcoming course:

https://werobotics.org/online-training

When the registration for the course opens on May 1st, you’ll be the first to receive an invitation to register. Certificates of completion will be provided to participants who successfully pass the training. We plan to offer this training several times a year and already plan to introduce other trainings in the future including trainings on the use of Cargo Drones in Public Health and Drones in Environmental Action. In the meantime, big thanks to our friends at TechChange for their partnership.

 

Meet the Youngest Drone Pilots in Fiji

In 2017, WeRobotics was one of more than 500 teams to compete in the MIT Solve Challenge on Youth, Skills and Workforce of the Future. Only 2% were selected as winners, and only 1% of all the applicants received dedicated funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Atlassian Foundation. Our pitch focused on building the foundations of South Pacific Flying Labs. By winning the MIT Solve Award and securing funding from DFAT, Atlassian and the University of the South Pacific (USP), Pacific Flying Labs has been able to join our global and growing network of Flying Labs; including labs in Nepal, Tanzania, Uganda, Peru, Dominican Republic and soon Brazil, Panama, Senegal and Philippines. Pacific Flying Labs is the first of our labs to have a strong focus on preparing youths for the workforce of the future.

Pacific Labs is a joint collaboration with USP and the university’s Geospatial Sciences Program, which is where the lab is based. Amrita Lal, an alum of USP’s program, leads the work of Pacific Flying Labs from Fiji. In the weeks and months following our successful pitch to the MIT Solve Challenge, Amrita along with WeRobotics, USP faculty and volunteers organized two dedicated trainings and projects with youths from Fiji. Amrita and team also organized and ran the first ever drones for good conference in the South Pacific, bringing together key stakeholders from Fiji and the region to catalyze new partnerships for future projects. The youths who participated in the trainings and projects included young women and men from local schools and local orphanages. In addition, undergraduate students from USP also participated in trainings on campus. As part of this initiative, WeRobotics transferred 2 underwater drones and 2 aerial drones to South Pacific Flying Labs along with tablets and relevant software.

The first training and project focused on the use of marine robotics to study the health of coral reefs. Participants learned how to use underwater drones safely and effectively. They captured over an hour of underwater footage from a pier off Maui Bay. The following day, at the USP GIS Lab, they teamed up into groups and analyzed the footage. The groups learned to identify the different species of fish (particularly butterfly fish) and corals visible in the footage in order to assess the health of the corals. They also learned about how marine life is impacted by human activity including climate change. They subsequently created powerpoint slides and presented their findings and recommendations to each other. After their presentations, participants were trained on how to use aerial drones safely and effectively. This training was carried out at an approved field on USP campus. The women who participated in these trainings and projects ranged from 12 to 18 years in age and all but one were from a local orphanage.

The second training and project focused on the use of aerial drones for a disaster risk reduction at an informal settlement near USP campus. The training began with a lecture on the use of drones in disaster response. This training comprised both manual flights and automated flights. The latter taught participants how to program and supervise flight plans. Following this training, the youths worked with Pacific Flying Labs to map an informal settlement. Once the imagery was collected, participants returned to the lab to process and analyze the imagery. More specifically, they teamed up into groups to identify health risks, safety concerns and vulnerabilities to natural hazards. They subsequently created powerpoint slides and presented their findings and recommendations to each other. Their findings were subsequently shard with the Red Cross. Young men (aged 17-18) and one young woman (aged 17) participated in this second training and project. Some of the youths who participated in the marine training & project also joined the aerial robotics training & project.

Once the trainings and projects were completed, Pacific Flying Labs and WeRobotics met with key stakeholders and prospective partners to explore collaboration opportunities. This included meetings with the Australian Red Cross (pictured below), Fiji Red Cross, Secretariat of Pacific Communities (SPC), World Mosquito Program (WMP) and Suva Fire Service, for example.

In addition, live demos of cargo flights were given to both to the Civil Aviation Authority and to USP students and faculty (video below). Also, initial training on marine drones was provided to USP students at the swimming pool on campus. In total, 21 USP students joined our aerial and marine drone demos and lectures.

The first phase of our work with Pacific Flying Labs culminated with a full day workshop on the use of drones for social good in the South Pacific. This was the first convening of it’s kind in the region, and brought together key stakeholders to address common challenges, identify opportunities and to create new strategic partnerships. These stakeholders included the Fiji Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Australian Center for Field Robotics, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and several other groups. Two youths who participated in both sets of trainings/projects opened the workshop by presenting their findings (photo below; the young woman in this photo is not one of the vulnerable youths who participated in the trainings/projects). This opening session was followed by a series of talks from local and international participants working on drones projects in the region.

During the afternoon sessions, participants discussed common challenges and new partnership opportunities. Over 30 participants from 8 different organizations participated in the workshop. Four new strategic partnership opportunities were identified  between Pacific Labs and the following organizations as a result: Red Cross, SPC, World Mosquito Program and Australian Center for Field Robotics.

Today, Fiji is being hit by a second cyclone in just as many weeks. Amrita and team are already in touch with the Fiji Red Cross and are on standby to support the disaster response and recovery work after Cyclone Keni barrels through. So instead of hiring drone companies from Australia or further afield, organizations like the Red Cross, UN and World Bank can hire young drone pilots from Fiji to support a wide range of humanitarian, development and environmental projects. Local pilots can respond more quickly than foreign pilots; plus they know the country better, speak the local language, understand local traditions and have lower overhead costs. This is just one several ways we plan to prepare youths in the region for the workforce of the future.

How Mosquitos are Hitching a Ride on Drones to Reduce Zika

I had the distinct honor of serving on the expert panel of judges for the prestigious International Drones and Robotics for Good Awards in Dubai for 2 years. It was there that I first came across the path-breaking work of the Insect Pest Control Laboratory (IPCL) of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture (NAFA). Their proposed solution: to fight Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases by using drones. I was impressed with their innovative approach and pleased that their pitch was recognized as such by my fellow judges in Dubai: the FAO/IAEA team was selected as one of 10 semi-finalists from over 1,000 competing teams.

I therefore reached out to IPCL when USAID launched their Grand Challenge on combating Zika and related diseases. I was keen to explore whether WeRobotics could help translate IPCL’s pitch in Dubai into reality. To be sure, combining FAO/IAEA’s world renowned expertise in pest control with our demonstrated expertise in the application of robotics for positive social impact could really make a difference. Thankfully, USAID was equally excited and kindly awarded us with this grant to design, prototype and field-test a mosquito release mechanism specifically for drones.

Mosquitoes are one of the world’s biggest killers, responsible for spreading deadly diseases including Zika, dengue and malaria. Among the many ways being researched to combat this threat is the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) – flooding the environment with non-biting, sterile male mosquitoes, which after mating produce sterile eggs and a reduction in the local mosquito population. SIT is a complementary tool in pest-control efforts. This form of insect birth control has been used successfully for decades to combat insects, including the Mediterranean fruit fly, the screwworm and the tsetse fly, and is now being adapted to help fight disease-transmitting mosquitos. One of the challenges for the potential use of this technique is efficiently spreading millions of sterile mosquitoes – this is where drones come in. So for the past year we have been working together with IPCL on a drone-based mosquito dispersion mechanism, as part of USAID’s Grand Challenge on combating Zika and related diseases.

You can read here about the motivations behind using mosquito-releasing drones for vector control. As we’ve recently received some media coverage on our joint project (e.g., BBC, IEEE Spectrum, TechExplore, DigitalTrends, Interna-tional Business Times and Internet of Business) we wanted to share the latest developments on our prototype.

While release mechanisms exist for fruit flies (in particular for manned aircraft), mosquitoes are alas far more fragile. Developing a release mechanism for mosquitoes is a lot more difficult, presenting a number of design challenges ranging from the shape of the mosquito storage unit and its nozzle, to the type of ejection unit used to physically disperse them. Quality of the mosquitoes as they exit the mechanism is paramount; the mosquitoes must be able to find mates, and any damage to their wings or body can prevent them from successfully competing with non-sterile males.

In addition, the mosquitoes need to be kept between 4-10 °C to keep them in a sleep-like state so that they don’t get “active” and hurt each other when placed into the small release mechanism. So the challenge here is to maintain the cold-chain as efficiently as possible; not only during the drone flight, but also during transportation to the takeoff site and setup of the drone platform.

Our immediate direct goal is to release 50,000-100,000 mosquitoes over one square kilometer in a single drone flight. While a range of ejection solutions were considered, we’re currently using a mechanism based on a simple rotating cylinder with small slots that transfers mosquitoes in small batches. This mechanism was developed for other fragile insects within the ERC REVOLINC project (PCT/EP2017/059832). To chill the mosquitoes we’re using a passive cooling technique based on phase change materials.

The first step in validating the system is lab tests. Our partners at IPCL have reared hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes (photo above) and passed them through the device in various configurations, measuring their resistance to the mechanical stress of the mechanism, wind resistance and various other details. The release mechanism was extensively tested with real mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) at IPCL in Vienna with further tests scheduled for early December.

Lab tests help us characterize our mechanism in controlled conditions, but the real proof of the mechanism’s efficacy must be done in the mosquito’s natural habitat. We are thus finalizing our plans to field test the release mechanism with live mosquitoes in Latin America in early 2018. IPCL will be using mosquito traps during these tests to evaluate the survival and dispersal of mosquitoes from the mechanism, comparing it to ground-based release and giving us clues on the impact of aerially-released sterile mosquitoes on the overall mosquito population.

Stay tuned for the results of our field tests in coming months!

Entire Fleet of Cargo Drones Tested in the Amazon Rainforest

Cross-posed from WeRobotics.

In June 2017, WeRobotics teamed up with the Peruvian Ministry of Health and Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) to field test a fleet of affordable cargo drones in the Amazon Rainforest. BD is a leading, multi-billion dollar medical technology company. The majority of the flights were carried out by our Peru Flying Labs and UAV del Peru. During the course of two weeks, we field-tested a dozen drones including fixed-wings and hybrid drones; carrying a variety of medical payloads (medicines, diagnostic tests, blood samples) across a range of distances (stretching from 2km to 126km). These comprehensive field tests comprised over 40 flights and built on the initial tests we carried out with the Peruvian Ministry of Health in December 2016 and February 2017. Our detailed report on these recent flight tests is available here (PDF). High-resolution photos can be found here and live tweets of the field tests with additional photos and videos are available here.

In addition to testing the impact of drone flights on blood samples, BD carried out a number of finding mission to better understand the full range of health care challenges that local communities face in this region of the Amazon. The interviews also sought to provide a better understanding of the actual status of the health care systems already running in the region. While in Contamana, for example, the BD team met a woman who had arrived the night before from a remote community following serious complications in childbirth. Since drugs for treatment weren’t available in her community, she had to travel for 5 hours (3 hours walking and 2 hours by boat) while enduring postpartum hemorrhaging, to reach the hospital in Contamana. The use of a drone would have allowed emergency supplies to be delivered within 30-60 minutes directly to the remote community where the woman gave birth. This is just one of multiple findings documented by BD during the field tests; findings that indicate a clear unmet need for transporting medical supplies and, almost more importantly, patient specimens to allow for appropriate diagnosis.

At one point during our field tests, the main airport in the region, Pucallpa Airport, had to close and ground all manned aircraft for half-a-day due to dense fog, a common occurrence in the Amazon. If Contamana had been out of emergency supplies when the woman reached the hospital, it is doubtful that she or her baby would have lived unless a plane could be dispatched to deliver the supplies. What was so striking about all manned aircraft being grounded due to the fog is that it had no effect on the cargo drone flights; the drones could keep flying while a dozen manned aircraft lay idle at the airport. The drones had the entire regional airspace to themselves. Naturally, we still followed all drone regulations as required by the Peruvian Aviation Authorities.

One of the main goals of the recent field tests was to evaluate the performance and reliability of more affordable drones. Fact is, cargo drones that cost over USD 10,000 are unlikely to be appropriate for certain use-cases and contexts in the Amazon Rainforest. This not only due to budgetary constraints and the need for a viable business model but also because more expensive drones tend to be more sophisticated, thus requiring more training and often more infrastructure. The majority of drones used during the field tests were locally assembled in Lima with our Peru Flying Labs and tested there for two weeks before taking flight over the Amazon. This local capacity building strategy is central to all our Flying Labs. Furthermore, it is typically easier to repair affordable drones locally. Affordable drones also tend to be easier and cheaper to transport. In the photo above, two such drones are tied to the back of a motor taxi. Finally, there is little need for very high frequency flights in the Amazon, which means that more expensive drones and sophisticated drones may not be necessary.

Working with affordable drones obviously comes with tradeoffs, however. One of the goals of the field tests was to better understand these tradeoffs in the context of the Amazon Rainforest—not only technical tradeoffs but tradeoffs in process as well, e.g., preventive maintenance. In total, 93% of our cargo drone flights were successful with 3 flights failing shortly after takeoff, posing no physical risk to anyone. It is important to note that the root cause of two of these failures may have been linked to preventive maintenance issues (process) rather than a technical problem. The third failure was in some ways to be expected since it was specifically an experimental takeoff meant to experiment with certain parameters. In other words it was a controlled failure, as noted in our report. Telemetry, weather data and flight statistics are also available in the report, which is the only detailed, transparent and publicly available report on cargo drone trials to date.

To learn more about our lessons learned from the recent field tests in the Amazon Rainforest and our future cargo delivery projects, be sure to join our webinar next month, November 15th, at 12pm New York Time. Information on how to sign up will be made available via our email list and via social media (follow us on Twitter and Facebook). If you’d like to join future WeRobotics projects, be sure to join our roster.

In the meantime, we sincerely thank the Peruvian Ministry of Health as well as regional and local doctors and clinics in Pucallpa, Masisea, Tiruntan and Contamana for their partnership and invaluable support. We also express our very kind thanks to the Peruvian Civil Aviation Authorities (DGAC) and the airport authorities in Pucallpa for granting us permissions for the field tests. Sincerest thanks to Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) for their partnership and support for the field tests and to the whole team at UAV del Peru for making these field tests possible. Big thanks as well to all the volunteers at Peru Flying Labs for the countless hours they put into the field tests. We’d also like to thank our technology partner, Oriol Lopez, and the missionaries in Pucallpa who lent us their airfield in San Jose.

For questions/comments and media enquiries, please contact Dr. Patrick Meier (patrick@werobotics.org) and Dr. Adam Curry (adam.curry@bd.com).

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