Fiji was largely spared the wrath of Cyclone Gita, but the high-end category 4 Cyclone devastated the islands of Tonga nearby. As typically happens, the drone companies that international organizations are now hiring to carry out aerial surveys of the damage come from Australia and/or New Zealand. These foreign companies usually arrive weeks after the disaster. They also charge high consulting fees, and rarely speak the local language. In addition, they typically stay a week or two at most, which means aerial imagery is not available during the recovery and reconstruction phase. Lastly, foreign companies rarely if ever have time to build local capacity, let alone the know-how to sustainably transfer drone technology to local partners.
Our mission at WeRobotics is to localize appropriate robotics technology by placing drone solutions directly in the hands of local professionals. We do this through our growing network of Flying Labs—local action labs run entirely by local teams who we train and equip. This doesn’t mean that foreign drone companies don’t have an important role to play in the aftermath of major disasters. But it does mean that national and international organizations should absolutely prioritize hiring local drone pilots and imagery analysts. This helps to build local capacity and create local jobs. It also enables local participation in data collection and avoids delays as well as possible biases in the collection of said data. In sum, when the need for aerial data cannot be met locally, then yes, national and international organizations should absolutely turn to foreign companies to collect aerial data. But if these organizations ignore or displace the local capacity that does exist, then this is really problematic. Said organizations should invest in building the capacity of local youths, not sideline them.
This explains why our growing network of Flying Labs around the world are deeply committed to training the youths in their countries on how to use drones safely, responsibly and effectively for social good projects. Today’s youths are the drone pilots of the immediate future. This is why our Pacific Flying Labs is teaming up with a local girl’s orphanage and other youths in Fiji to map informal settlements for a disaster risk reduction project. The youths will learn how to use drones safely, responsibly and effectively. Our Pacific Labs will also teach them how to use Ground Control Points (GCPs) and how to process the resulting imagery to create high quality maps as well as 3D models. In addition, they will try out Hangar and Survae to create additional information products. In sum, the purpose of this project is to introduce local youths to the basics of drone mapping so they can participate in the data collection process and learn the skills they need to participate in the workforce of the 21st century.
Once the aerial data is processed, the resulting maps will be printed out on large banners. Youths will team up into different groups to analyze these maps. They will first identify major areas of concern. For example, they will analyze housing infrastructure, drainage and environmental issues, disaster risks and the long term impact of climate change on these informal settlements. Equally importantly, youths will propose concrete solutions for each of the concerns they’ve identified. They will then present their project and findings to local, national and international organizations at conference organized by Pacific Flying Labs and the University of the South Pacific (USP) on March 16th.
After the workshop, the Coordinator of Pacific Flying Labs, Amrita Lal, plans to head to Tonga where she will team up with a Tongan classmate of hers from USP to carry out aerial surveys to support the recovery and reconstruction efforts. Amrita is so committed to this that she has decided to skip her undergraduate graduation ceremony to be in Tonga. This will make her the one and only female drone pilot from the region to be involved in the response to Cylcone Gita. Her classmate, who recently graduated from USP, will be the only Tongan drone pilot involved in the response to Gita. He will hold on to one of the drones from Pacific Flying Labs so that he can continue mapping as needed. In the future, we hope that Amrita and other drone pilots from Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and elsewhere will be the ones hired by national and international organizations to support humanitarian efforts in their countries.
Our Pacific Flying Labs will also be using the Trident, an underwater drone from OpenROV, one of our Technology Partners. Pacific Labs will train girls from an orphanage in Fiji and other local youths. This will enable youths to learn the skills they need to thrive in the workforce of the 21st Century. It will also give them the opportunity to explore the marine life around their island from a completely new perspective.
The marine robotics project will be led by our Pacific Flying Labs Coordinator, Ms. Amrita Lal. Local youths will be using underwater drones to explore and evaluate the health of coral reefs. The location selected has sea-grass, bare sand and corals in all directions. Participating youths will have been trained the day before at a swimming pool at the University of the South Pacific (USP) on how to operate underwater drones to capture live video footage and photographs. They will identify and count different species of fish—particularly Butterflyfish since these serve as an important indicator of coral reef health. They will also seek to identify and count Parrotfish, Surgeonfish, Tangs, Sea Urchins, Molluscs and Clams. In addition, youths will document the presence or absence of coral bleaching and diseases. While some initial visual analysis will be carried out on site with the live footage, the bulk of the analysis will take place at USP’s GIS Lab the following day.
Dr. Stuart Kininmont, a Senior Lecturer at USP’s School of Marine Studies, will be joining our marine robotics expedition. Dr. Stuart teaches Coral Reef Ecology, Marine Spatial Planning and Marine Geology and Sedimentology. In addition, two Marine Science Teaching Assistants will join the expedition to facilitate the data collection. Dr. Stuart will also teach youths on how to identify and count relevant marine life species when we’re back at the USP lab. Youths will be given out pre-made charts with photos and descriptions of relevant species and will study the recorded footage frame by frame to document and analyze the health of the coral reefs.
After carrying out their visual analyses of the footage, we’ll work with participating youths to help them produce formal presentations of the project along with their findings. They’ll learn how to create a create a professional slide deck and how to give a compelling presentation. They will rehearse their presentations in front of each other in order to get further feedback. These youths will then give their talks at the opening of the Pacific Flying Labs Conference that week. This conference will bring relevant local, national and regional stakeholders to create a road map for Pacific Labs. Training youths across the region on how to use appropriate robotics for social good is a key priority of the labs.
We’re also planning to explore what other types of drone-derived information products might also be useful for marine scientists and biologists. Colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, for example, use diver-operated underwater cameras to take images of coral reefs which they process into high-definition 3D models. These models informs their “high-level ecological questions (community & landscape ecology: community structure & composition, spatial patterning, coral condition, structural complexity, etc) for peer-reviewed publication.” The models also “provide baseline assessment data for marine managers and communities.” We’re keen to explore whether the high-definition 4K cameras on the underwater drones can provide sufficiently high-resolution data to create high-definition 3D models usable for advanced scientific research.
We’re excited to work on this project with Amrita and local youth; a project made possible thanks our close partnership with USP’s GIS Lab and the generous support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Atlassian Foundation and USP. In addition, we want to thank our Technology Partner OpenROV for generously donating a Trident to our South Pacific Flying Labs.
Many thanks to USP for their close partnership on South Pacific Flying Labs and to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Atlassian Foundation for their generous support of Pacific Labs.