Tag Archives: drones

Using UAVs for Search & Rescue

UAVs (or drones) are starting to be used for search & rescue operations, such as in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda a few months ago. They are also used to find missing people in the US, which may explain why members of the North Texas Drone User Group (NTDUG) are organizing the (first ever?) Search & Rescue challenge in a few days. The purpose of this challenge is to 1) encourage members to build better drones and 2) simulate a real world positive application of civilian drones.

Drones for SA

Nine teams have signed up to compete in Saturday’s challenge, which will be held in a wheat field near Renaissance Fair in Waxahachie, Texas (satellite image below). The organizers have already sent these teams a simulated missing person’s report. This will include a mock photo, age, height, hair color, ethnicity, clothing and where/when this simulated lost person was last seen. Each drone must have a return to home function and failsafe as well as live video streaming.

Challenge location

When the challenge launches, each team will need to submit a flight plan to the contest’s organizers before being allowed to search for the missing items (at set times). An item is considered found when said item’s color or shape can be described and if the location of this item can be pointed to on a Google Map. These found objects then count as points. Points are also awarded for finding tracks made by humans or animals, for example. Points will be deducted for major crashes, for flying at an altitude above the 375 feet limit and risk disqualification for flying over people.

While I can’t make it to Waxahachie this weekend to observe the challenge first-hand, I’m thrilled that the DC Drones group (which I belong to), is preparing to host its own drones search & rescue challenge this Spring. So I hope to be closely involved with this event in the coming months.

Wildlife challenge

Although search & rescue is typically thought of as searching for people, UAVs are also beginning to appear in conversations about anti-poaching operations. At the most recent DC Drones MeetUp, we heard a presentation on the first ever Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc). The team has partnered with Krueger National Park to support their anti-poaching efforts in the face of skyrocketing Rhino poaching.

Rhino graph

The challenge is to “design low cost UAVs that can be deployed over the rugged terrain of Kruger, equipped with sensors able to detect and locate poachers, and communications able to relay accurate and timely intelligence to Park Rangers.” In addition, the UAVs will have to “collect RFID tag data throughout the sector; detect, classify, and tack all humans; regularly report on the location of all rhinos and humans; and receive commands to divert from general surveillance to support poacher engagement anywhere in the sector. They also need to be able to safely operate in same air space with manned helicopters, assisting special helicopter borne rangers engage poachers.” All this for under $3,000.

Why RFID tag data? Because rangers and tourists in Krueger National Park all carry RFID tags so they can be easily located. If a UAV automatically detects a group of humans moving through the bush and does not find an RFID signature for them, the UAV will automatically conclude that they may be poachers. When I spoke with one of the team members following the presentation, he noted that they were also interested in having UAVs automatically detect whether humans are carrying weapons. This is no small challenge, which explains why the total cash prize is $65,000 and an all-inclusive 10-day trip to Krueger National Park for the winning team.

I think it would be particularly powerful if the team could open up the raw footage for public analysis via microtasking, i.e., include a citizen science component to this challenge to engage and educate people from around the world about the plight of rhinos in South Africa. Participants would be asked to tag imagery that show rhinos and humans, for example. In so doing, they’d learn more about the problem, thus becoming better educated and possibly more engaged. Perhaps something along the lines of what we do for digital humanitarian response, as described here.

Drone Innovation Award

In any event, I’m a big proponent of using UAVs for positive social impact, which is precisely why I’m honored to be an advisor for the (first ever?) Drones Social Innovation Award. The award was set up by my colleague Timothy Reuter (founder of the the Drone User Group Network, DUGN). Timothy is also launching a startup, AirDroids, to further democratize the use of micro-copters. Unlike similar copters out there, these heavy-lift AirDroids are easier to use, cheaper and far more portable.

As more UAVs like AirDroids hit the market, we will undoubtedly see more and more aerial photo- and videography uploaded to sites like Flickr and YouTube. Like social media, I expect such user-generated imagery to become increasingly useful in humanitarian response operations. If users can simply slip their smartphones into their pocket UAV, they could provide valuable aerial footage for rapid disaster damage assessments purposes, for example. Why smart-phones? Because people already use their smartphones to snap pictures during disasters. In addition, relatively cheap hardware add-on’s can easily turn smartphones for LIDAR sensing and thermal imaging.

All this may eventually result in an overflow of potentially useful aerial imagery, which is where MicroMappers would come in. Digital volunteers could easily use MicroMappers to quickly tag UAV footage in support of humanitarian relief efforts. Of course, UAV footage from official sources will also continue to play a more important role in the future (as happened following Hurricane Sandy). But professional UAV teams are already outnumbered by DIY UAV users. They simply can’t be everywhere at the same time. But the crowd can. And in time, a bird’s eye view may become less important than a flock’s eye view, especially for search & rescue and rapid disaster assessments.

Bio

 See also:

  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • UN World Food Program to Use UAVs [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]

Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent […] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law […].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness'”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

UN World Food Program to use UAVs

I met with the World Food Program’s (WFP) Emergency Information Management team in Rome late last year and was pleasantly surprised when the term UAVs came up; Unmanned Areal Vehicles, otherwise known as drones and predators in different contexts. The fact that a leading field-based UN agency is actively engaged in a pilot program to use UAVs as early as this summer is particularly surprising and exciting at the same time.

Why surprising? UN Member States have been consistently touchy vis-a-vis issues of sovereignty. Indeed, much time has passed since President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1960 proposal for a “UN aerial reconnaissance capability […] to detect preparations for attack” to operate “in the territories of all nations prepared to accept such inspection.” Eisenhower had pledged that “the United States is prepared not only to accept United Nations aerial surveillance, but to do everything in its power to contribute to the rapid organization and successful operation of such international surveillance.” My, my how times have changed.

Why exciting? There is a notable albeit delayed “spill-over” effect between the use of ICTs by the disaster management and subsequently by the conflict prevention and human rights community. Furthermore, the occurrence of natural disasters amid complex political emergencies is an increasingly widespread phenomenon: over 140 natural disasters have occurred in complex political emergencies in the past five years alone.

The team at WFP is collaborating with ITHACA to build the UAV prototype Pelican. ITHACA is the Information Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action, a center of Excellence created by Politecnico di Torino (DITAG) and the Istituto Superiore sui Sistemi Territoriali per l’Innovazione (Si.T.I)

The main goal of the UAV project is to support disaster management through an innovative and effective tool for rapid mapping purposes in the early impact stage. The UAV is easily transportable on normal aircrafts and usable on the field, autonomously, by a couple of operators. The platform is equipped with the autopilot MP2128g, which allows an autonomous flight except for take-off and landing, and with digital sensors characterized by geometric and radiometric resolutions suitable for digital photogrammetry. […]

If satellite data are not available or not suitable to supply radiometric and geometric information, in situ missions must be foresaw. To this end the Pelican is equipped with a GPS/IMU navigation system and different photographic sensors suitable for digital photogrammetric shootings with satisfying geometric and radiometric quality. It can be easily transportable on normal aircrafts and usable on the field by a couple of operators.

The aircraft is equipped with the MP2128g autopilot that allows autonomous flights and provides a real-time attitude of flight. The software HORIZONmp provides flight path and current sensor values in real-time. The operator can also insert a flight plan (up to 1000 waypoints) on a preloaded map and upload them during the flight. Besides the system can be connected with the payload cameras, so it is possible to schedule an automatic shooting time. The operations of take-off and landing must be accomplished manually due to the insufficient GPS’s in-flight accuracy.

The Pelican uses the Ricoh GR commercial digital camera. The use of two Ricohs (stereo pairs) allows the Pelican to rapidly update existing maps and to perform 3D feature extraction devoted to the identification of areas that require further investigations.

When I spoke to the team at WFP, they quoted a price range of $12-$10K, which is definitely the cheapest price tag I’ve come across for a UAV with the Pelican’s specs. The folks in Torino are also working to push the range of the Pelican to 200km with longer endurance limits. One could then operate the Pelican from Thailand/Burmese border and fly the UAV into Burma to identify movement of soldiers.

Of course, the military junta could try and take the bird down, but even if the small Pelican took a hit, all the data would have been captured before impact thanks to the real-time video downlink made possible by the Ricoh. The potential for an iRevolution would be met if video footage could be beamed to individual mobile phones, perhaps using the video encryption technology I recently blogged about.

Patrick Philippe Meier