Category Archives: Drones/UAVs

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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How to Defeat Zika with Flying Robots

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

Mosquitos kill more humans every year than any other animal on the planet and conventional methods to reduce mosquito-borne illnesses haven’t worked as well as many hoped. So we’ve been hard at work since receiving this USAID grant six months ago to reduce Zika incidence and related threats to public health.

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Our partners at the joint FAO/IAEA Insect Pest Control Lab in Vienna, Austria have been working to perfect the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) in order to sterilize and release male mosquitos in Zika hotspots. Releasing millions of said male mosquitos increases competition for female mosquitos, making it more difficult for non-sterilized males to find a mate.

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We learned last year at a USAID Co-Ideation Workshop that this technique can reduce the overall mosquito population in a given area by 90%. The way this works is by releasing millions of sterilized mosquitos using cars, helicopters and/or planes, or even backpacks.

Our approach seeks to complement and extend (not replace) these existing delivery methods. The challenge with manned aircraft is that they are expensive to operate and maintain. They may also not be able to target areas with great accuracy given the altitudes they have to fly at.

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Cars are less expensive, but they rely on ground infrastructure. This can be a challenge in some corners of the world when roads become unusable due to rainy seasons or natural disasters. What’s more, not everyone lives on or even close to a road.

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Our IAEA colleagues thus envision establishing small mosquito breeding labs in strategic regions in order to release sterilized male mosquitos and reduce the overall mosquito population in select hotspots. The idea would be to use both ground and aerial release methods with cars and flying robots.

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The real technical challenge here, besides breeding millions of sterilized mosquitos, is actually not the flying robot (drone/UAV) but rather the engineering that needs to go into developing a release mechanism that attaches to the flying robot. In fact, we’re more interested in developing a release mechanism that will work with any number of flying robots, rather than having a mechanism work with one and only one drone/UAV. Aerial robotics is evolving quickly and it is inevitable that drones/UAVs available in 6-12 months will have greater range and payload capacity that today. So we don’t want to lock our release mechanism into a platform that may be obsolete by the end of the year. So for now we just using a DJI Matrice M600 Pro so we can focus on engineering the release mechanism.

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Developing this release mechanism is anything but trivial. Ironically, mosquitos are particularly fragile. So if they get damaged while being released, game over. What’s more, in order to pack one million mosquitos (about 2.5kg in weight) into a particularly confined space, they need to be chilled or else they’ll get into a brawl and damage each other, i.e., game over. (Recall the last time you were stuck in the middle seat in Economy class on a transcontinental flight). This means that the release mechanism has to include a reliable cooling system. But wait, there’s more. We also need to control the rate of release, i.e., to control how many thousands mosquitos are released per unit of space and time in order to drop said mosquitos in a targeted and homogenous manner. Adding to the challenge is the fact that mosquitos need time to unfreeze during free fall so they can fly away and do their thing, ie, before they hit the ground or else, game over.

We’ve already started testing our early prototype using “mosquito substitutes” like cumin and anise as the latter came recommended by mosquito experts. Next month, we’ll be at the FAO/IAEA Pest Control Lab in Vienna to test the release mechanism indoors using dead and live mosquitos. We’ll then have 3 months to develop a second version of the prototype before heading to Latin America to field test the release mechanism with our Peru Flying Labs. One of these tests will involve the the integration of the flying robot and the release mechanism in terms of both hardware and software. In other words, we’ll be testing the integrated system over different types of terrain and weather conditions in Peru specifically.

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We are already developing the mission control app pictured above to program our autonomous flights. The app will let the operator decide how many sterilized mosquitos to release at any given time and location. Our field tests in Peru will also seek to identify the optimal flight parameters for the targeted and homogenous delivery of sterilized mosquitos. For example, what is the optimal speed and altitude of the flying robot to ensure that the mosquitos are released over the intended areas?

Our Peru Flying Labs has already developed expertise and capacity in cargo drone delivery, most recently in projects in the Amazon Rainforest with the Ministry of Health (more here). This new Zika reduction project –and in particularly the upcoming field tests — will enable us to further build our Peruvian team’s capacity in cargo space. The plan is for Peru Flying Labs to operate the flying robots and release mechanisms as need once we have a more robust version of the release mechanism. The vision here is to have a fleet of flying robots at our Flying Labs equipped with release mechanisms in order to collectively release millions of sterilized mosquitos over relatively large areas. And because our Peruvian colleagues are local, they can rapidly deploy as needed.

For now, though, our WeRobotics Engineering Team (below) is busy developing the prototype out of our Zurich office. So if you happen to be passing through, definitely let us know, we’d love to show you the latest and give you a demo. We’ll also be reaching out the Technical University of Peru who are members of our Peru Flying Labs to engage with their engineers as we get closer to the field tests in country.

As an aside, our USAID colleagues recently encouraged us to consider an entirely separate, follow up project totally independently of IAEA whereby we’d be giving rides to Wolbachia treated mosquitos. Wolbachia is the name of bacteria that is used to infect male mosquitos so they can’t reproduce. IAEA does not focus on Wolbachia at all, but other USAID grantees do. Point being, the release mechanism could have multiple applications. For example, instead of releasing mosquitos, the mechanism could scatter seeds. Sound far-fetched? Think again.

Global Thought Leadership in Social Sector Robotics

Cross-posted from WeRobotics

“I’ve been to countless remote sensing conferences over the past 30 years but WeRobotics Global absolutely ranks as the best event I’ve been to.” – Remote Sensing Expert

“The event was really mind-blowing. I’ve participated in many workshops over the past 20 years. WeR Global was by far the most insightful and practical. It is also amazing how closely together everyone is working — irrespective of who is working where (NGO, UN, private sector, donor). I’ve never seen such a group of people come together this away.” – Humanitarian Professional

“WeRobotics Global is completely different to any development meeting or workshop I’ve been to in recent years. The discussions flowed seamlessly between real world challenges, genuine bottom-up approaches and appropriate technology solutions. Conversations were always practical and strikingly transparent. This was a highly unusual event.” – International Donor

WeRobotics Global has become a premier forum for social good robotics. The feedback featured above was unsolicited. On June 1, 2017, we convened our first, annual global event, bringing together 34 organizations to New York City (full list below) to shape the global agenda and future use of robotics in the social good sector. WeRobotics Global was kindly hosted by Rockefeller, the first donor to support our efforts. They opened the event with welcome remarks and turned it over to Patrick Meier from WeRobotics who provided an overview of WeRobotics and set the big picture context for social robotics.

The first panel featured our Flying Labs Coordinators from Tanzania (Yussuf), Peru (Juan) and Nepal (Uttam). Each shared the hard work they’ve been doing over the past 6-10 months on localizing and applying robotics solutions. Yussuf spoke about the lab’s use of aerial robotics for disaster damage assessment following the earthquake in Bukoba and for coastal monitoring, environmental monitoring and forestry management. He emphasized the importance of community engagement and closed with new projects that Tanzania Flying Labs is working on such as mangrove monitoring for the Department of Forestry. Juan presented the work of the labs in the Amazon Rainforest, which is a joint effort with the Peruvian Ministry of Health. Together, they are field-testing the use of affordable and locally repairable flying robots for the delivery of antivenom and other medical payload between local clinics and remote villages. Juan noted that Peru Flying Labs is gearing up to carry out a record number of flight tests this summer using a larger and more diverse fleet of flying robots. Last but not least, Uttam showed how Nepal Flying Labs has been using flying robots for agriculture monitoring, damage assessment and mapping of property rights. He also gave an overview of the social entrepreneurship training and business plan competition recently organized by Nepal Flying Labs. This business incubation training has resulted in the launch of 4 new Nepali start-up companies focused on Robotics-as-a-Service. 

The following videos provide highlights from each of our Flying Labs: Tanzania, Peru and Nepal.

The second panel featured talks on sector based solutions starting with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). The Federation (Aarathi) spoke about their joint project with WeRobotics; looking at cross-sectoral needs for various robotics solutions in the South Pacific. IFRC is exploring at the possibility of launching a South Pacific Flying Labs with a strong focus on women and girls. Pix4D (Lorenzo) addressed the role of aerial robotics in agriculture, giving concrete examples of successful applications while providing guidance to our Flying Labs Coordinators. The Wall Street Journal (Sally) spoke about the use of aerial robotics in news gathering and investigative journalism. She specifically emphasized the importance of using flying robots for storytelling. Duke Marine Labs (David) closed the panel with an overview of their projects in nature conservation and marine life protection, highlighting their use of machine learning for automated feature detection for real-time analysis.

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Panel number three addressed the transformation of transportation. UNICEF (Judith) highlighted the field tests they have been carrying out in Malawi; using cargo robotics to transport HIV samples in order to accelerate HIV testing and thus treatment. UNICEF has also launched an air corridor in Malawi to enable further field-testing of flying robots. MSF (Oriol) shared their approach to cargo delivery using aerial robotics. They shared examples from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and emphasized the importance of localizing appropriate robotics solutions that can be maintained locally. MSF also called for the launch of PNG Flying Labs. IAEA was unable to attend WeR Global, so Patrick and Adam from WeRobotics gave the talk instead. WeRobotics is teaming up with IAEA to design and test a release mechanism for sterilized mosquitos in order to reduce the incidence of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. More here. Finally, Llamasoft (Sid) closed the panel with a strong emphasis on the need to collect and share structured data to accurately carry out comparative cost-benefit-analyses of cargo delivery via flying robots versus conventional means. Sid used the analogy of self-driving cars to highlight how problematic the current lack of data vis-a-vis reliably evaluating the impact of cargo robotics.

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The fourth and final panel went beyond aerial robotics. Digger (Thomas) showed how they convert heavy construction vehicles into semi-autonomous platforms to clear landmines and debris in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. Science in the Wild (Ulyana) was alas unable to attend the event, so Patrick from WeRobotics gave the talk instead. This focused on the use of swimming robots to monitor glacial lakes in the Himalaya. The purpose of the effort is to identify cracks in the lake floors before they trigger what local villagers call the tsunamis of the Himalaya. OpenROV (David) gave a talk on the use of diving robots, sharing real-world examples and providing exciting updates on the new Trident diving robot. Planet Labs (Andrew) gave the closing talk, highlighting how space robotics (satellites) are being used across a wide range of social good projects. He emphasized the importance of integrating both aerial and satellite imagery to support social good projects.

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The final session at WeR Global comprised breakout groups to identify next steps for WeRobotics and the social good sector more broadly. Many quality insights and recommendations were shared during the report back. One such recommendation was to hold WeR Global again, and sooner rather than later. So we look forward to organizing WeRobotics Global 2018. We will be providing updates via our blog and email list. We will also use our blog and email list to share select videos of the individual talks from Global 2017 along with their respective slide decks.

In the meantime, a big thanks to all participants and speakers for making Global 2017 such an unforgettable event. And sincerest thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for hosting us at their headquarters in New York City.


Organizations that participated in WeRobotics Global 2017

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), World Food Program (WFP), UN Development Program (UNDP),Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), UNICEF, World Bank, World Economic Forum (WEF), Cadasta, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Duke Marine Labs, Fauna and Flora International, Science in the Wild, Drone Journalism Lab, Wall Street Journal, ESRI, Pix4D, Radiant, OpenAerialMap, Planet Labs, Llamasoft, Amazon Prime Air, senseFly, OpenROV, Digger, UPenn Robotics, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Rockefeller Foundation, Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation, USAID and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

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!