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Drones Can Do a Lot of Good if Used Correctly and With Respect

Why it's important for humanitarians to build relationships and trust before sending in drones

August 9, 2016

Often, the short stories we read about drones doing good in war-torn places or after natural disasters gloss over the unglamorous realities of putting feet in the mud to care for people in harm’s way. We don’t read about what it takes to have a positive effect on lives in the world’s desperate places. Let’s change that.

The Humanitarian UAV Network — UAViators, for short — has had lots "drones for good" coverage we’re talking about.

UAViators works with drone-maker DJI and various mapping companies to train college students in Nepal to create 3D map files from images gathered by drone. These maps, known as crisis maps, help aid relief agencies rebuild communities devastated by the back-to-back Nepali earthquakes in 2015.

The video’s Nov. 4, 2015, publish date — nearly seven months after the April 25 quake — is a hint at the twist in this story. The Nepal government banned unpermitted UAV flights in the country less than a month after the first quake, concerned that people would misuse video and images of sensitive heritage sites. (Think ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries.)

Patrick Meier says he’s not a drone professional, but a humanitarian — albeit one who uses drones. Those who go into crisis situations because they plan to fly their drones and save the world get it backwards, at least from Meier’s perspective. He calls them cowboys and believes they’re likely what provoked the government crackdown.

“Let’s just say that they had zero sensitivity in terms of community engagement,” says Meier, founder of UAViators and frequent collaborator with the United Nations, World Bank, and other organizations looking to use UAS for good. “I’m coming down hard on them because they set us back six months. And by the way, a few of them got arrested, and rightly so.”

The worst of the drone cowboys, Meier says, didn’t ask for flight permission and failed to tell local chiefs who they were or what exactly they were doing in the Nepali towns. Following the Nepal government crackdown, Meier says he and others spent months rebuilding trust, explaining their 3D-mapping purpose and convincing authorities that members of the network are sincere professionals.

For the record, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs specifically references the Humanitarian UAV Network in a June 2014 policy paper. The U.N. cites the network as an example of the kind of initiatives UAV techies and hobbyists should join and participate in to be in good standing with the U.N. and its relief efforts.
“I’m coming down hard on them because they set us back six months. And by the way, a few of them got arrested, and rightly so.”
There’s little surprise that the top U.N. and UAViators goals for humanitarian UAVs equate to roughly the same things: flying safely, legally, respectfully, and with clear purpose.

Void from the UAViators’ code of conduct are discussions about battery life, quick response times, or cutting-edge technology. In fact, Meier says breakthrough UAV tech would have stood little chance of going with him to Nepal.

“We didn’t want a DIY kind of tool that might or might not work. We wanted something that was solid and easy-to-use because, at the end of the day, we were training our local partners to take this over,” he says.

When a humanitarian organization such as the U.N. or the International Committee of the Red Cross looks for UAS, he says, they’re looking for a dependable platform that costs less than $20,000 — but less than $10,000 is preferable. Visible light or RGB (red-green-blue) cameras are better than lidar or near-infrared sensors. Images produced by visible light are similar to images from satellites and manned aircraft photos, so they’re familiar to most aid workers. Oh, and parachutes are a big plus.

“You are about to fly over a highly traumatized population of refugees that have just experienced the worst few days of their lives,” Meier says. He has to account for the failure rate of a particular UAV platform and make a decision regarding whether the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

With all this in mind, Meier and colleagues chose to fly the Phantom 3 in Nepal. After a typhoon in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, Meier worked with operators chosen by the World Bank who flew Lockheed Martin Indago quadcopters and Align M690L hexacopters modified with 3D Robotics Pixhawk processors and carrying DSLR cameras. Meier also speaks well of SenseFly eBees as a go-to fixed wing option for extended flight time and range.

“It depends on what you’re using it for, obviously, what the mandate is, and what the project is,” he says. “Coming up with a very sophisticated, very expensive technology is simply not the way to go.”
Nepali children watch a DJI representative assembles and prepares Phantom 3 quads for crisis mapping in the earthquake-hit city of Panga — local support is critical for success. Patrick Meier
Unless you're Matternet

The well-known Menlo Park, CA-based company is already delivering parcels by drone in Switzerland and Papua New Guinea. In March 2016, Matternet began demonstrating its delivery system with the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund in Malawi.

The Fund uses Matternet One proprietary UAVs and software to transport newborn babies’ blood samples from rural areas to more centrally located laboratories for HIV testing — newborn tests are more complicated than those for adults. Currently, samples travel by motorbike or automobile for 11 days over often mud-clogged roads, UNICEF says, with results returned over the same roads about eight weeks later. A drone has the potential to cut this down to minutes and hours.

“So the earlier the detection and the earlier the intervention, the longer they live and become productive citizens of the country,” Peter Kumpalume, Malawi’s minister of health, told the BBC.

Matternet meets all the guidelines set by UAViators and the U.N. The Malawi government has inspected Matternet drones and declared them safe, while also approving air corridors for tests. Its work with both UNICEF and the government check boxes for cooperation and local buy-in, and testing infants’ blood for a deadly disease is a clear, well-defined, achievable goal.

If the Malawi government and UNICEF approve the Matternet system for further testing, expect to see a network of ground stations placed along flight paths near the edges of Matternet One’s current 1-kilogram payload range (around 10 kilometers). That would follow Matternet executives’ publicized visions of vast drone-powered networks moving physical goods. These networks would resemble low-altitude, airborne webs moving practically anything, from medicines and medical samples to reports and batteries, the way the internet moves information on established but flexible pathways.

But this delivery strategy doesn’t come close to Amazon.com's Prime Air anywhere-in-30 minutes delivery goal. From central warehouses, Amazon aircraft would fly in lanes, or the most convenient compass direction at any particular moment, and land autonomous aircraft on residential lawns, and how that will ultimately look is anyone’s guess.

To Kumpalume, in Malawi, the biggest concern is cost. Matternet’s system would cost about $7,000 per unit in Malawi, according to the BBC — well  below Meier’s $10,000 sweet-spot. Yes, seven grand is more than a cheap automobile or a motorbike, but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars less than building a paved road network.

And that may be where UAS have an in. Speaking at a 2014 TED City 2.0 talk in Chengdu, China, Matternet cofounder Paola Santana said specially designed UAVs can carry an estimated 1 kilogram of freight 20 kilometers for $0.24 compared to $3 to $5 for land-based modes.

“This is the power of things that are unexpected,” Santana told the BBC. “People didn’t see them coming, and then they change everything.”

The change she speaks of is  opening up world markets to as many as a billion people who are now hobbled by the lack of basic transportation infrastructure where they live.

Santana contrasts building drone networks with traditional road and infrastructure projects, which she criticizes, in part, because the natural progression of capital-intense roads leads to an out-of-control spiral of big, congested cities that demand money for more roads — to build bigger, more congested cities.

“We know this system is unsustainable and just increases inequality,” she says.

Ambitious as Matternet’s founders are, even they have yet to propose the ultimate humanitarian UAV deployment location: Syria.
Sentinel Project staff member John Otunga prepares for drone operations in Kenya. Sentinel leaders hope UAS will one day squelch rumors in conflict zones, preventing unnecessary violence.
Sentinel project
Into a warzone

“Not a lot of people knew starvation was used as a weapon of war,” says Jessie Mooberry, former vice director of Uplift Aeronautics. “Uplift’s mission was nothing less than creating a Berlin Airlift for Syria using fixed-wing drones.”

The all-volunteer nonprofit disbanded in 2015 — but not before developing its prototype light utility vehicle, or LUV. LUV had to meet certain qualifications to become viable: cost less than $1,000 per aircraft in mass production; deliver a minimum payload of 2 kilograms 50 kilometers away; and return safely 99% of the time or more.

“Technology is not perfect enough,” Mooberry says.

The best that Uplift achieved was 85% reliability, which she points out is not nearly good enough. A failure could mean a drone falling from the sky at the most inopportune time.

“Coming at it from a humanitarian point of view, you look at everything that could go wrong. Are you going to hit a child or family?” she asks.

But the biggest problem wasn’t about drones; it was about people.

Sadly, Uplift received no support from militaries in the region, and while it garnered verbal encouragement from humanitarian agencies, none would claim it or sponsor its work — a significant impediment for a volunteer group.

This still bothers Mooberry, a half a year after Uplift’s demise. Trapped Syrians who could have received food or medicine despite roadblocks, gunfire, and shredded cities, still wait for relief despite the 2016 ceasefires.

Uplift is in the past, but there is still hope for the future of drones in Syria. When the civil war one day cools to hostile encampments with little open fighting, you might see a Canadian nonprofit helping keep the peace. The Sentinel Project’s mission is to find out rumors as soon as possible and quickly verify or debunk them. But these aren’t leads on the latest Paris fashions or player availability for the World Cup. These are rumors of attacks on often defenseless villagers in unstable regions.

Sentinel has rumor verification services in Kenya (called Una Hakika, Swahili for “Are you sure?”) and Myanmar (called Peaceful Truth): Local people with cellphones or portable networking devices send reports or receive requests to check on reported attacks. It also has databases that monitor these worldwide rumors, including wikirumours; Hatebase, a database that catalogues the key words and phrases of hate speech around the world that can be precursors to genocide; and the Conflict Tracking System, which is a real-time conflict tracking system that Sentinel updates with the best available information.

The missing piece is drones.
John Otunga (right) and Christine Mutisya (center) receive UAV ground training from Sentinel Project Director of Operations Drew Boyd (left). Kenya gave the go-ahead for more tests in May. Sentinel Project
Don’t be a cowboy. Help, don’t hinder.
Sentinel Executive Director Christopher Tuckwood describes a day in 2015 when he was eating with colleagues in Mpeketoni, Kenya, as they received reports of an attack in the nearby village of Pandanguo. Sentinel didn’t have a network there. Phone calls and messages flew. Someone knew somebody near the village who could be trusted, but he wasn’t immediately available.

Tuckwood eventually found a local intelligence officer who had information on the situation. Luckily, as it turns out, the official verified the attack report as an unfounded rumor.

“Imagine, if that day in Mpeketoni, we had even a moderately sized fixed-wing UAV at our disposal,” Tuckwood wrote in a blog post on Sentinel’s website. “Rather than having to find people to call in Pandanguo or risking a physical visit during a potential attack, we could have quickly flown the UAV there to determine whether an attack was actually happening while also gathering valuable imagery in the worst-case scenario.”

Tuckwood says Sentinel is working with the Kenyan government for permission to make test flights over the country. When the time comes, the organization will be able to field a fleet of two 3DR Aero fixed-wing UAVs, one Walkera H500 hexacopter, a 3DR Iris+, and a small quad.

Drew Boyd, Sentinel’s operations director, says they will use the Aeros for long-range missions while the Walkera will fly security perimeter flights high-risk areas. The Iris+ can work in a security perimeter role or join the small quadcopter in familiarizing locals and government officials with UAVs, some for the first time.

But there is still so much to work out. Sentinel is hammering away on standards: When to launch a drone to investigate a rumor, the best way to record and determine what they see in real-time video, how to respond to the gathered data, who to share the data with — the list goes on.

Sentinel needs to create processes to integrate the human intelligence from their Kenyan Wikirumours network with images that they might capture in the sky. And they need to find a way to keep everyone neutral, says Tuckwood.

“Very rarely do you have the group that is just the victim and another group that is just the aggressor. The question is, if you can’t give just one group UAVs and not the other, do you give them both UAVs, or neither?” he says. “We’re there really for prevention of violence and protection of civilians.”

With time, it may be that the Sentinel Project never receives the permission Tuckwood thinks it deserves, that Matternet gets stopped cold in the next country it visits, or the Humanitarian UAV Network is asked to step away from a future project. And each organization, especially organizations that are new to
humanitarian relief efforts, needs to be OK with that possibility, says UAViators’ Meier.

“Be prepared for ‘no.’ Be prepared for, ‘No, I don’t need your help.’ ‘No, don’t self-deploy.’ ‘No, don’t even think about it,’” Meier says. And don’t insist. “Otherwise,” he says. “You’re going to line yourself up for potential problems.”

In short, don’t be a cowboy. Help, don’t hinder.

Note: A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Drone360 magazine.
Featured image: Patrick Meier