Article

Humanitarians in the Sky: Discussing Data Collection via UAVs

    Author:
  • Emma Schwartz
  • September 4, 2014
Humanitarians in the Sky

This summer we kicked off a four-part webinar series exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in development with help from some of the technology’s most revered thought-leaders and driving organizations.

In the second session, we heard from Patrick Meier, Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) Director of Social Innovation and founder of UAViators, a humanitarian UAV network created to facilitate the safe, responsible and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

To guide his presentation around applications of use and issues surrounding data collection, Meier highlighted three recent cases of humanitarian UAVs in action — in the Balkans, Haiti and the Philippines.

Damage assessment & demining in the Balkans

The Balkans region got more rain in May and June this year than it has in recorded human history, creating massive flooding and mudslides. An EU project called ICARUS helped to assess the damage using rotary winged quad copters.  The emergency was especially unique in that the impacted area also had large mine fields that hadn’t been cleared since conflict in the ‘90s — some of which were displaced by the flooding. 

“When I spoke to the pilot who spearheaded the operation, he mentioned that some of these mines were displaced as much as 23 kilometers,” Meier said. “Obviously not only mines were displaced, but people, communities and local populations who, when they returned to these areas when the water subsided, had no idea that these mine fields had been largely displaced and thereby posed an urgent threat.”

The quad copter took 22 flights over the course of a few days, assessing the flood and mudslide damage and looking for unexploded and displaced mines at the surface level and visible from the air. Meier was able to share some of the footage captured, which was used to create high-resolution geo-statistical 3D models to identify the mines and mitigate the danger.

Click here to read more about the UAV mission during the Balkan floods >

A community driven process in Haiti

In Haiti, there have been a number of projects over the past couple of years that have used UAVs. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) partnered with UAViators member Drone Adventures to conduct imagery capture and analysis. The team created a 3D model enabling the prediction of where heavy rainfall flow was most likely to go and which houses would be in the line of disaster. The imagery captured was also used for a number of other applications in addition to topographical and 3D maps, like identifying IDP camps no longer inhabited and conducting damage assessments after Hurricane Sandy; the UAVs covered 44.7 sq. kilometers in 6 days.

In June, CartONG and OpenStreetMap (OSM) used UAVs for mapping efforts. Realizing how useful this data was for authorities and NGOs, they created COSHMA – an open street map community for Haiti. They regard the drone as a package, with multiple uses like disaster risk reduction and spatial planning projects.

In many ways, UAVs are an extension of the public community mapping field. They have been experienced as a “uniting tool that brings the community together,” driving community mapping, engagement and participation. The technology has introduced a huge opportunity to build local capacity and engagement, with both women and men actively involved in the process. 

Seeing this potential, IOM and Drone Adventures have already provided the technology and training for a local team of Haitians to autonomously launch, deploy, maintain and track the use of their own local UAV.

In the Philippines, honing in on household levels

In the days following Typhoon Haiyan, DanOffice IT flew quad copters up and down the coast of the Philippines for a number of different purposes, including road clearance support and the assessment of damage. The video helped them to accelerate and target response efforts.

MEDAIR partnered with Drone Adventures a few months after the Typhoon for support in their relief, reconstruction and development efforts on the ground. The Drone Adventures team was able to create a detailed set of 2D and 3D models of the disaster affected area to inform MEDAIR’s strategies and determine areas of greatest need. Because of the high resolution of these images, they were also able to identify the level of assistance that should be given to individual households and could use the imagery to advocate on behalf of families. 

Read more on the above initiatives here >

Making sense of big data

An important part of all this, with respect to the community engagement theme again, is the commitment to open data. 

All of these use cases, Meier said, are contributing to a big aerial data challenge, and  crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence are two ways to address it.

Using artificial intelligence, Meier’s colleagues at the European Commission Joint Research Centre have developed a machine with 92% accuracy in its ability to detect features of interest in Haiti and determine how much rubble is left from the 2010 earthquake (learn more here).

As for their own efforts, QCRI has developed a platform in collaboration with UNOCHA called MicroMappers, which uses crowdsourcing and microtasking to make sense of big data during disasters. They’re currently extending the platform to combine both crowdsourcing and machinery. The idea is that digital volunteers will be asked to trace features of interest like shelters without roofs, and then the machines will learn to identify the same features over time.  

Enhancing collaboration, information sharing around policy, laws, regulations

To close, Meier discussed key policy issues around the use of humanitarian UAVs and highlighted concrete steps taken by UAViators to address them.

After initiation, UAViators’ first action was the publication of a working code of conduct for the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. They’re started a comprehensive and ongoing evaluation of more than 170+ UAVs in the commercial market as well as valuations of camera technology, payload mechanisms and the kinds of software available for imagery analysis and processing.

UAViators has also partnered with a European group to create a training and certification course for humanitarian professionals, offering hands on training on flying. The first course should begin by summer of 2015, pending approval by the civil aviation authority of the country.

In addition, the team recently launched a UAV Wiki on travel & law to inform organizations on existing local and national laws and regulations [accessible here]. Meier calls it a “trip advisor for UAV travel.” The country directory is complete with a travel section including tips for traveling with UAVs and permits required. 

“There is a humanitarian imperative: the international community must provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed…and sometimes UAVs are going to be the best way to provide that assistance. It’s important to figure out policy, laws and regulations around them.”

For more, replay the webinar recording here >

Don’t forget to join us for the next one! RSVP here for the third installment September 9th on currently available UAV technologies & open source development. The session will feature 3D Robotics, an innovator in personal drones and UAV technology, and ArduPilot, an open source Autopilot for UAVs. More details here.

This four-part webinar series is co-produced by Andrew Schroeder, Director of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief, Gisli Olaffson, Emergency Response Director at NetHope, and the NetHope Solutions Center, in an effort to develop a community of practice and engaging discourse around UAVs. For relevant collateral, visit the dedicated UAV Community page on the NetHope Solutions Center.

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