Tag Archives: Robots

Introducing WeRobotics

WeRobotics accelerates the use of robotics to solve humanitarian challenges. More specifically, we accelerate the ethical, safe and effective use of robotics to address aid, development and environmental challenges. Robots, such as drones or UAVs, are already transforming multiple industries through rapid & dramatic gains in efficiency and productivity. The impact on the social good sector will be no different. We want to create a world in which every social good organization has access to robotics technologies to solve global and local challenges.

Robots are technologies that radically enhance the ability of people to sense and affect physical change. The state of the art in robotics is quickly shifting from manually controlled systems to increasingly intelligent autonomous systems. Aid, development & environmental organizations have yet to take full advantage of these new solutions. The field of robotics is evolving so quickly that the social good sector is largely unaware of the possibilities let alone how to translate this potential into meaningful impact. As a result, robotics solutions are often over-looked or worse: seen as a threat rather than a unique opportunity to accelerate social good. We turn this perceived threat into powerful new opportunities for both the technology and social good sectors.

Aerial robotics (or UAVs) represent the first wave of robotics to impact the social good sector by disrupting traditional modes of data collection and payload delivery. In fact, aerial robotics is the current leading edge of humanitarian robotics applications. UAVs stand to offer cost-saving, time-saving and even life-saving solutions by enabling novel ways to collect data and transport payloads. Both timely data and the capacity to act on this data are integral to aid, development and environmental projects. Aerial robotics can thus fulfill two key roles: data collection and payload delivery. Indeed, we’ve already witnessed this use of aerial robotics for social good in dozens countries in recent years including Albania, Bosnia, China, Guyana, Haiti, Japan, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand and Vanuatu.

The rapid commercialization of consumer UAVs explains why aerial robots are the first—but certainly not the last—wave of intelligent robots to impact the social good space. The second and third waves are already in plain sight: industry and academia are making tremendous strides in both terrestrial and maritime robotics. Like aerial robots, terrestrial and maritime robots will significantly extend people’s ability to collect data and transport payloads. WeRobotics thus seeks to fast-track the social good sector’s access to aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics to expand the impact of aid, development and environmental projects.

The combined impact of increasingly autonomous systems on the social good sector will bring massive change. This will need to be managed carefully. WeRobotics offers dedicated platforms to channel this rapid change ethically, safely and effectively. Cities are the main drivers of innovation, social change, population growth and risk. To this end, WeRobotics is co-creating a global network of city-level labs in countries experiencing cascading risks, rapid development and/or environmental challenges. These localized platforms—our Flying Labs—are co-created with local and international partners to seed the social good sector with direct access to aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotics. The first phase will prioritize the deployment of aerial robotics, hence the name Flying Labs. Once terrestrial and maritime robotics become integrated into the Labs, these will become WeRobotics Labs.

Our Lab partners will include industry, academia and social good organizations as evidenced by our recent co-creation of Kathmandu Flying Labs in Nepal. Other local partners in Africa, Asia and South America have recently approached us to explore the possibility of co-creating Flying Labs in their cities as well. Each Lab will focus on sector-based applications of robotics that are directly relevant to the local area’s needs, interests and opportunities. As such, one Lab might lead with the deployment of aerial robotics for data collection in environmental projects while another might prioritize maritime robotics for payload delivery in development projects. A third might focus on autonomous terrestrial robotics for sensing and payload delivery in aid projects. In short, our co-created Labs are launchpads where robotics solutions can be deployed ethically, safely and effectively within each social good sector.

WeRobotics will manage the core activities of the Labs through our dedicated sector-based programs—AidRobotics, DevRobotics and EcoRobotics. These programs will partner with aid, development and environmental organizations respectively and with technology partners to carry out joint activities in each Lab. As such, each program is responsible for catalyzing and managing its own sector’s strategic partnerships, hands-on trainings, operational projects, applied research and key events within each of the Labs. Future programs might include HealthRobotics, AgriRobotics and RightsRobotics.

Once a Lab is fully trained in one type of robotics technology, such as aerial robotics, local Lab partners carry out future aerial robotics projects themselves. Meanwhile, WeRobotics works on introducing other relevant robotics solutions to the Labs—such as terrestrial and maritime robotics—in close collaboration with other technology partners. WeRobotics also ensures that learning and innovations generated in each Lab are disseminated to all labs in order to accelerate cross-pollination around uses cases and new robotics solutions.

WeRobotics is the missing link between robotics companies, academia and social good organizations. We want to catalyze strategic, cross-sectoral partnerships by creating a common purpose, platform and opportunity for these diverse partners to collaborate on meaningful social good projects. WeRobotics is currently a joint exploration between four accomplished professionals. We bring together decades of experience in the humanitarian sector, robotics industry and the private sector. Feedback and/or questions are welcomed via email.

Rescue Robotics: An Introduction

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Robin Murphy when she participated in the 3-day Policy Forum on Humanitarian UAVs, which I organized and ran at the Rockefeller Center in Italy last month. Anyone serious about next generation humanitarian technology should read Robin’s book on rescue robotics. The book provides a superb introduction to the use of robotics in search and rescue missions and doubles as a valuable “how to manual” packed with deep insights, lessons learned and best practices. Rescue robots enable “responders and other stakeholders to sense and act at a distance from the site of a disaster or extreme incident.” While Robin’s focus is predominantly on the use of search-robots for rescue missions in the US, international humanitarian organizations should not overlook the important lessons learned from this experience.


As Robin rightly notes, ‘the impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding […] is increasing, so the need for robots for all phases of a disaster, from prevention to response and recovery, will increase as well.” This is particularly true of aerial robots, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which represent the first wide-spread use of robotics in international humanitarian efforts. As such, this blog post relays some of the key insights from the field of rescue robots and aerial UAVs in particular. For another excellent book on the use of UAVs for search and rescue, please see Gene Robinson’s book entitled First to Deploy.

The main use-case for rescue robotics is data collection. “Rescue robots are a category of mobile robots that are generally small enough and portable enough to be transported, used and operated on demand by the group needing the information; such a robot is called a tactical, organic system […].” Tactical means that “the robot is directly controlled by stakeholders with ‘boots on the ground’—people who need to make fairly rapid decisions about the event. Organic means that the robot is deployed, maintained, transported, and tasked and directed by the stakeholder, though, of course, the information can be shared with other stakeholders […].” These mobile robots are “often referred to as unmanned systems to distinguish them from robots used for factory automation.”


There are three types or modalities of mobile robots: Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), Unmanned Marine Vehicles (UMVs) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UGVs are typically used to enter coal mines following cave-in’s or collapsed buildings to search for survivors. Indeed, “mine disasters are the most frequent users or requesters of rescue robots.” As an aside, I found it quite striking that “urban structures are likely to be manually inspected at least four times by different stakeholders” following a disaster. In any event, “few formal response organizations “own rescue robots, which explains the average lag time of 6.5 days for a robot to be used [in] disaster [response].” That said, Robin notes that this lag time is reduced to 0.5 day when a “command institution had a robot or an existing partnership with a group that had robots […].” While “robots are still far from perfect, they are useful.” Robin is careful to note that the failures and gaps described in her book “should not be used as reasons to reject use of a robot but rather as decision aids in selecting a currently available robot and for proactively preparing a field team for what to expect.”

The Florida State Emergency Response Team deployed the first documented use of small UAVs for disaster response following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Robin Murphy’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search & Rescue (CRASAR) also flew two types of small UAVs to assist with the rescue phase: an AeroVironment Raven (fixed-wing UAV) and an iSENSYS T-Rex variant miniature helicopter (pictured below). Two flights were carried out to “determine whether people were stranded in the area around Pearlington, Mississippi, and if the cresting Pearl River was posing immediate threats.” These affected areas were “unreachable by truck due to trees in the road.” The Raven UAV unfortunately crashed “into a set of power lines […] while landing in a demolished neighborhood.” CRASAR subsequently carried out an additional 32 flights with an iSENSYS IP-3 miniature helicopter to examine “structural damage at seven multistory buildings.”

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The second documented deployment of UAVs in Robin’s book occurs in 2009, when a quadrotor used by the Sapienza University of Rome in the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009. Members of the University’s Cognitive Cooperative Robotics Lab deployed the UAV on behalf of the L’Aquila Fire Department. “The deployment in the debris concentrated on demonstrating mobility to fire rescue agencies.” The third documented use of UAVs occurred in Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake. An Elbit Skylark (fixed-wing) UAV was used to survey the state of a distant orphanage near Leogane, just outside the capital.

Several UAV deployments occurred in 2011. After the Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand, a consumer Parrot AR drone was initially used to fly into a cathedral to inspect the damage (aerial photo bellow). That same year, a Pelican UAV was used in response to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami to “test multi-robot collaborative mapping in a damaged building at Tohoku University.” In this case, multirobot means that “the UAV was carried by a UGV” to get the former inside the rubble so it could fly inside the damaged building. At least two additional UAVs were used for the emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Note that a “recording radiological sensor was zip tied to [one of the UAVs] in order to get low-altitude surveys.” Still in 2011, two UAVs were used in Cyprus after an explosion damaged a power plant. The UAVs were deployed to “inspect the damage and create a three-dimensional image of the power plant.” This mission “suggested that multiple UAVs could simultaneously map a face of the structure, [thus] accelerating the reconnaissance process. Finally, at least two multiple fixed-wing UAVs were used in Bangkok following the Great Thailand Flood in 2011. These aerial robots were used to “monitor large areas and allow disaster scientists to predict and prevent flooding.”


In 2012, a project funded by the European Union (EU) fielded to UAVs following earthquakes in Northern Italy to assess the exteriors of “two churches that had not been entered [for] safety reasons. The robots were successful and provided engineers and cultural historians with information that could not have been obtained otherwise.” UAV deployments following disasters in Haiti in 2012 and the Philippines in 2013 do not appear in the book, unfortunately. In any event, Robin notes that the main barrier to deploying UGVs, UMVs and UAVs “is not a technical issue but an administrative one.” I would add regulatory constraints as another major hurdle.

Robin’s book provides some excellent operational guidance on how to carry out rescue-robot missions successfully. These guidance notes also identify existing gaps in recent missions. One such gap is the “lack of ability to integrate UAV data with satellite imagery and other geographical sources,” an area that I’m actively working on (see MicroMappers). Robin makes an important observation on the gaps—or more precisely the data gaps that exist in the field of rescue robotics. “Surprisingly few deployments have been reported in the scientific or professional literature, and even fewer have been analyzed in any depth.” And even when “data are collected, many reports lack a unifying framework or conceptual model for analysis.”

This should not be surprising. Rescue robotics, and humanitarian UAVs in particular, “are new areas of discovery.” As such, “their newness means there is a lag in understanding how best to capture performance and even the dimensions that make up performance.” To be sure, “performance goes beyond simple binary declarations of mission success: it requires knowing what worked and why.” Furthermore, the use of UAVs in aid and development requires a “holistic evaluation of the technology in the larger socio-technical system.” I whole heartedly agree with Robin, which is precisely why I’ve been developing standardized indicators to assess the performance of humanitarian UAVs used for data collection, payload transportation and communication services in international humanitarian aid. Such standards are needed earlier rather than later since “the current state of reporting deployments is ad hoc,” which means “there is no guarantee that all deployments have been recorded, much less documented in a manner to support scientific understanding or improved devices and concepts of operations.” I’ll be writing more on the standardized indicators I’ve been developing in a future blog post.

As Robin also notes, “it is not easy to determine if a robot accomplished the mission optimally, was resilient to conditions it did not encounter, or missed an important cue of a victim or structural hazard.” What’s more, “good performance of a robot in one hurricane does not necessarily mean good performance in another hurricane because so many factors can be different.” Fact is, Rescue robotics have a “very small corpus of natural world observations […],” meaning that there is limited documentation based on direct observation of UAV missions in the field. This is also true of humanitarian UAVs. Unlike the science of rescue-robotics, many of the other sciences have a “large corpus of prior observations, and thus ideation may not require new fundamental observations of the natural world.” What does this mean for rescue robotics (and humanitarian UAVs)? According to Robin, the very small corpus of real world observations suggests that lab experimentation and simulations will have “limited utility as there is little information to create meaning models or to know what aspect of the natural world to duplicate.”

I’m still a strong proponent of simulations and disaster response exercises; they are key to catalyzing learning around emerging (humanitarian) technologies in non-high-stakes environments. But I certainly take Robin’s point. What’s very clear is that a lot more fieldwork is needed in rescue-robotics (and especially in the humanitarian UAV space). This fieldwork can be carried out in several ways:

  • Controlled Experimentation
  • Participation in an Exercise
  • Concept Experimentation
  • Participant-Observer Research

Controlled experimentation is “highly focused, either on testing a hypothesis or capturing a performance metric(s) […]. Participation in an exercise occurs in simulated-but-realistic environments. This type of fieldwork focuses on “reinforcing good practices […].” Concept experimentation can occur both in simulated environment and in the real world. “The experimentation is focused on generating concepts of how a new technology or protocol can be used […].” This type of experimentation also “identifies new uses or missions for the robot.” Lastly, “participant-observer” research is conducted while the robot is actually deployed to a disaster, and is a form of ethnography.” 

There are many more important, operational insights in Robin’s book. I highly recommend reading sections 3-6 in Chapter 6 since they provide very practical advice on how to carry out rescue-robotics missions. These section are packed with hands-on lessons learned and best practices, which very much mirror my own experience in the humanitarian UAV space, as documented in this best practices guide. For example, she emphasizes the critical importance of having a “Data Manager” as part of your deployment team. “The first priority of the data manager is to gather all the incoming data, and perform backups.” In addition, Robin Murphy strongly recommends that expert participant-observer researcher be embedded in the mission team—another suggestion I completely agree with. In terms of good etiquette, “Do not attempt first contact during a disaster,” is another suggestion that I wholeheartedly agree with. This is precisely why the UN asked UAV operators in Nepal to first check-in with the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators).

In closing, big thanks to Robin for writing this book and for participating in the recent Policy Forum on Humanitarian UAVs.