Google Already Developing UAV’s for Disaster Response

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GoogleX is building and flying UAVs in the Australian outback. Codenamed Project Wing, Google’s super stealthy initiative was just announced to the public via The Atlantic in this exclusive article. The hybrid UAV delivers small packages by hovering in place (pictured above) and lowering it’s payloads using a thin line connected to the UAV itself. Once the package nears the ground, it detaches from the line which “ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose.” According to the BBC, “Google said that its long-term goal was to develop drones that could be used for disaster relief by delivering aid to isolated areas. They could be used after earthquakes, floods, or extreme weather events, the company suggested, to take small items such as medicines or batteries to people in areas that conventional vehicles cannot reach.”

“Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation,” according to Google. Project Wing was initially focused on “delivering defibrillators to help people who have had heart attacks. The key factor in the success of using a defibrillator is how quickly it is deployed, so saving a few minutes of transit time could make for a lifesaving application,” writes The Atlantic. “When you have a tool like this you can really allow the operators of those emergency services to add an entirely new dimension to the set of tools and solutions that they can think of,” says Google’s new lead for Project Wing.

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The multi-billion dollar companies Google and Amazon aren’t alone in exploring the use of UAVs for payload delivery, however. As I wrote earlier this week, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are experimenting with UAVs as are colleagues at UNICEF. And as a pivotal United Nations Report on UAVs notes, the Gates Foundation and MIT have been developing small UAVs that can be deployed “via SMS to swiftly transport small quantities of vaccines to clinics or health workers in isolated locations when roads were out, or the quantities don’t justify a car or truck delivery.”

The advanced research and development (R&D) carried by Google and Amazon will no doubt benefit WHO, MSF, UNICEF and others in the humanitarian UAV space—particularly if they develop their programs in a way that allows other groups to tap into their infrastructure. As one UAV expert notes, “The significance of what Google does, to me, is less in the vehicles they use here and now.” Perhaps far more important is Google (and Amazon) implementing the infrastructure that’s needed to facilitate innovation in the UAV space. The detect-and -avoid systems “will need to be certified,” for example, “and Google could help governments figure out how to do so.”

These are all exciting and promising developments for the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which promotes the safe and responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The Network’s Advisory Board includes representatives from the Red Cross as well as the United Nations in addition to key UAV experts. UAViators (pronounced You-Aviators) is co-organizing the first ever “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” this fall at UN Headquarters in New York. On the agenda for this meeting is the use of UAVs for imagery capture and beyond, that is, for payload delivery. So I hope my colleagues at Google Crisis Response will attend the meeting so we can discuss how humanitarian organizations might leverage Google’s UAVs in the near future.

My forthcoming book Digital Humanitarians (2015) explores the use of UAVs for disaster response as well as the roles that satellite imagery, social media and cell phone data are playing in relief efforts today.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • TripAdvisor for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies

The World Health Organization (WHO) is experimenting with Matternet’s new quadcopters (one of which is pictured below) to transport medical supplies to remote regions in Bhutan. The country lies in the Himalayas, which makes access to public health particularly challenging for rural communities. Reaching these remote mountain populations in a timely and affordable way is key. This explains why WHO is looking into UAVs.

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Matternet is “aiming to build a network of low-cost quadcopters to connect the country’s main hospitals with rural communities.” The team “uses small quad- copters that can carry loads of about four pounds across 20 km at a time, to and from pre-designated landing stations. The company is able to track these flights in real-time, and aims to eventually deploy fully-automated landing stations that replace drone batteries, giving them extended range and flight time. The drones it uses typically cost between $2,000-5,000.”

WHO UAVs

WHO is not the only international humanitarian organization exploring the use of UAVs for the transportation of small payloads. Colleagues at UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are actively exploring this use-case as well with the latter in early pilot stages with Matternet in Papua New Guinea.

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UAVs can also be used in other ways to support public health projects. Take my UAV colleagues in the Philippines who are collaborating with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on a food security problem with obvious linkages to public health. Typhoon Haiyan uprooted millions of coconut trees when it barreled through the country. Many of these trees have since been rotting, which is now leading to a Rhinocerous Beetle infestation that can wipe out the entire coconut industry—a very important source of livelihood for many in the country. Meanwhile, other colleagues in Pakistan are looking into using UAVs “to identify and exterminate dengue larvae” as part of an existing intervention that uses smart phones to promote mosquito mitigation efforts.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) just published a pivotal policy document (PDF) on the use of civilian UAVs in humanitarian settings. Key excerpts from this 20-page & must-read publication are highlighted below.

ICARUS Quadcopter

  • UAVs are increasingly performing civilian tasks as the technology becomes more common. In fact, 57 countries and 270 companies were manufacturing UAVs in 2013.
  • Humanitarian organizations have started to use UAVs, including in Haiti and the Philippines, for data collection and information tasks that include real time information and situation monitoring, public information and advocacy, search and rescue, and mapping.
  • Use of UAVs raises serious practical & ethical issues that humanitarian organizations must address through transparency, community engagement, and guidelines for privacy & data security.
  • To tap into the growing interest in UAVs, particularly in technical communities, humanitarian organizations should engage in networks that promote good practices and guidance, and that can serve as a source of surge capacity. [Like the Humanitarian UAV Network].
  • Due to their affordability, ease of transport, and regulatory concerns UAVs used in humanitarian response are likely to be small or micro-UAVs of up to a few kilograms, while larger systems will remain the province of military and civil defense actors.
  • Interest is building in the use of UAVs to assist in search and rescue, particularly when equipped with infrared, or other specialty cameras. For example, the European Union is funding ICARUS, a research project to develop unmanned search and rescue tools to assist human teams. [Picture above is of UAV used by ICARUS].
  • The analysis of data from these devices ranges from straight-forward to quite technically complex. Analytical support from crowdsourcing platforms, such as Humanitarian Open Street Map’s Tasking Server or QCRI’s MicroMappers, can speed up analysis of technical data, including building damage or population estimates.
  • More research is needed on integrating aerial observation and data collection into needs and damage assessments, search and rescue, and other humanitarian functions.
  • The biggest challenges to expanding the use of UAVs are legal and regulatory. [...]. Most countries where humanitarians are working do not yet have legal frameworks, meaning that use of UAVs will probably need to be cleared on an ad hoc basis with local authorities. A particular issue is interference with traditional air traffic [...].
  • Any use of UAVs by humanitarian actors [...] requires clear policies on what information they will share or make public, how long they will store it and how they will secure it. [...]. For humanitarians operating UAVs, transparency and engagement will likely be critical for success. Ideally, communities or local authorities would be informed of the timing of flights, the purpose of the mission and the type of data being collected, with the aim of having some kind of informed consent, whether formal or informal.
  • Although UAVs are getting safer, due to parachutes, collision avoidance systems and fail-safe mechanisms, humanitarians must think seriously about liability insurance and its cost implications, particularly for mechanical failure. Due in part to these safety concerns, ultra-light UAVs, such as those under a kilogram, will tend to be more lightly regulated and therefore easier to import & operate.
  • More non-profit or volunteer groups are also emerging, such as the Humanitarian UAV Network, a global volunteer network of operators working for safe operations & standards for humanitarian uses of UAVs.
  • The pressure for humanitarians to adopt this technology [UAVs], or to provide principled justifications for why they do not, will only increase. [...]. Until UAVs are much more established in general civilian use, the risks of humanitarians using UAVs in conflict settings are greater than the benefits. The focus therefore should be developing best practices and guidelines for their use in natural disasters, slow-onset emergencies and early recovery.

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In conclusion, the UN brief offers several policy considerations:

  • Focus on using UAVs in natural disasters and avoid use in conflicts.
  • Develop a supportive legal and regulatory framework.
  • Prioritize transparency and community engagement.
  • Ensure principled partnerships.
  • Strengthen the evidence base.
  • Update response mechanisms [...] to incorporate potential use of UAVs and to support pilot projects.
  • Support networks and communities of practice. [...]. Humanitarian organizations should engage in initiatives like the Humanitarian UAV Network, that aim to develop and promote good practices and guidance and that can serve as advisors and provide surge capacity.

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is actively engaged in pursuing these (and other) action items. The Network promotes the safe and responsible use of UAVs in non-conflict settings and is engaged in policy conversations vis-a-vis ethical, legal & regulatory frameworks for the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.  The Network is also bringing UAV experts together with seasoned humanitarian professionals to explore how best to update formal response mechanisms. In addition, UAViators emphasizes the importance of community participation. Finally, the Network carries out research to build a more rigorous evidence base so as to better document the opportunities and challenges of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Live Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]

Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake (updated)

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck Ludian County in Yunnan, China earlier this month. Some 600 people lost their lives; over 2,400 were injured and another 200,000 were forced to relocate. In terms of infrastructure damage, about 30,000 buildings were damaged and more than 12,000 homes collapsed. To rapidly search for survivors and assess this damage, responders in China turned to DJI’s office in Hong Kong. DJI is one of leading manufacturers of commercial UAVs in the world.

Rescuers search for survivors as they walk among debris of collapsed buildings after an earthquake hit Longtoushan township of Ludian county

DJI’s team of pilots worked directly with the China Association for Disaster and Emergency Response Medicine (CADERM). According to DJI, “This was the first time [the country] used [UAVs] in its relief efforts and as a result many of the cooperating agencies and bodies working on site have approached us for training / using UAS technology in the future [...].” DJI flew two types of quadcopters, the DJI S900 and DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ pictured below (respectively):

DJI S900

Phantom 2

As mentioned here, The DJI Phantom 2 is the same one that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is experimenting with:

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Given the dense rubble and vegetation in the disaster affected region of Ludian County in China, ground surveys were particularly challenging to carry out. So UAVs provided disaster responders with an unimpeded bird’s eye view of the damage, helping them prioritize their search and rescue efforts. DJI reports that the UAVs “were able to relay images back to rescue workers, who used them to determine which roads needed to be cleared first and which areas of the rubble to search for possible survivors. [...].”

The video above shows some striking aerial footage of the disaster damage. This is the not first time that UAVs have been used for search and rescue or road clearance operations. Transporting urgent supplies to disaster areas requires that roads be cleared as quickly as possible, which is why UAVs were used for this and other purposes after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. In Ludian, “Aerial images captured by the team were [also] used by workers in the epicenter area [...] where most of the traditional buildings in the area collapsed.”

DJI was not the only group to fly UAVs in response to the quake in Yunnan. The Chinese government itself deployed UAVs (days before DJI). As the Associated Press reported several weeks ago already, “A novel part of the Yunnan response was the use of drones to map and monitor a quake-formed lake that threatened to flood areas downstream. China has rapidly developed drone use in recent years, and they helped save time and money while providing highly reliable data, said Xu Xiaokun, an engineer with the army reserves.”

Working with UAV manufacturers directly may prove to be the preferred route for humanitarian organizations requiring access to aerial imagery following major disasters. At the same time, having the capacity and skills in-house to rapidly deploy these UAVs affords several advantages over the partnership model. So combining in-house capacity with a partnership model may ultimately be the way to go but this will depend heavily on the individual mandates and needs of humanitarian organizations.

Bio

See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Live Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]

Live: “TripAdvisor” for UAV/Drone Travel

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) promotes the safe and responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. As noted in the network’s Code of Conduct, knowing national and local UAV laws is an important aspect flying UAVs in a safe and responsible manner. To this end, we have just launched a “TripAdvisor” for UAV/drone travel in the form of this wiki:

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The Wiki is a country directory for UAV pilots to share their travel and flying experiences around the world, such as going through customs and how to obtain permits for flying, for example. The Wiki also includes information on national and local laws when available. We would like this to be a community-driven effort, which is why we decided to use a Wiki. In sum, we’d like to crowdsource the content for this Wiki. Our mission is make it the most popular and useful resource on the web for UAV pilots. You can help by adding your experience and knowledge directly to the Wiki. Thank you! And many thanks to my Research Team for all their hard work on the Wiki.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

 

Results: Evaluation of UAVs for Humanitarian Use

UAViators Logo

My team & I at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have just completed the first phase of our evaluation and welcome feedback on the results. We have reviewed over 150 UAV models along with camera technologies, payload units as well as image processing and analysis software. Each of these items have been reviewed within the context of humanitarian applications and with humanitarian practitioners in mind as end-users.

The results of the evaluation are available here in the form of an open and editable Google spreadsheet. We are actively looking for feedback and very much welcome additional entries. So feel free to review & add more UAVs and related technologies directly to the spreadsheet. Our second phase will involve the scoring/weighing of the results to identity the UAVs, cameras and software that may be the best fit for humanitarian organizations.

In the meantime, big thanks to my research assistants who carried out all the research for this review.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

 

From Russia with Love: A Match.com for Disaster Response

I’ve been advocating for the development of a “Match.com” for disaster response since early 2010. Such a platform would serve to quickly match hyperlocal needs with relevant resources available at the local and national level, thus facilitating and accelerating self-organization following major disasters. Why advocate for a platform modeled after an online dating website? Because self-organized mutual-aid is an important driver of community resilience.

Russian Bell

Obviously, self-organization is not dependent on digital technology. The word Rynda, for example, is an old Russian word for a “village bell” which was used by local communities to self-organize during emergencies. Interestingly, Rynda became a popular meme on social media during fires in 2010. As my colleague Gregory Asmolov notes in his brilliant new study, a Russian blogger at the time of the fires “posted an emotional open letter to Prime Minister Putin, describing the lack of action by local authorities and emergency services.” In effect, the blogger demanded a “return to an old tradition of self-organization in local communities,” subsequently exclaiming “bring back the Rynda!” This demand grew into a popular meme symbolizing the catastrophic failure of the formal system’s response to the massive fires.

At the time, my colleagues Gregory, Alexey Sidorenko & Glafira Parinos launched the Help Map above in an effort to facilitate self-organization and mutual aid. But as Gregory notes in his new study, “The more people were willing to help, the more difficult it was to coordinate the assistance and to match resources with needs.” Moreover, the Help Map continued to receive reports on needs and offers-of-help after the fires had subsided. To be sure, reports of flooding soon found their way to the map, for example. Gregory, Alexey, Glarifa and team thus launched “Virtual Rynda: The Help Atlas” to facilitate self-help in response to a variety of situations beyond sudden-onset crises.

“We believed that in order to develop the capacity and resilience to respond to crisis situations we would have to develop the potential for mutual aid in everyday life. This would rely on an idea that emergency and everyday-life situations were interrelated. While people’s motivation to help one another is lower during non-emergency situations, if you facilitate mutual aid in everyday life and allow people to acquire skills in using Internet-based technologies to help one another or in asking for assistance, this will help to create an improved capacity to fulfill the potential of mutual aid the next time a disaster happens. [...] The idea was that ICTs could expand the range within which the tolling of the emergency bell could be heard. Everyone could ‘ring’ the ‘Virtual Rynda’ when they needed help, and communication networks would magnify the sound until it reached those who could come and help.”

In order to accelerate and scale the matching of needs & resources, Gregory and team (pictured below) sought to develop a matchmaking algorithm. Rynda would ask users to specify what the need was, where (geographically) the need was located and when (time-wise) the need was requested. “On the basis of this data, computer-based algorithms & human moderators could match offers with requests and optimize the process of resource allocation.” Rynda also included personal profiles, enabling volunteers “to develop an online reputation and increase trust between those needing help and those who could offer assistance. Every volunteer profile included not only personal information, but also a history of the individual’s previous activities within the platform.” To this end, in addition to “Help Requests” & “Help Offers,” Rynda also included an entry for “Help Provided” to close the feedback loop.

Asmolov1

As Gregory acknowledges, the results were mixed but certainly interesting and insightful. “Most of the messages [posted to the Rynda platform dealt] with requests for various types of social help, like clothing and medical equipment for children, homes for orphans, people with limited capabilities, or families in need. [...]. Some requests from environmental NGOs were related to the mobilization of volunteers to fight against deforestation or to fight wildfires. [...]. In another case, a volunteer who responded to a request on the platform helped to transport resources to a family with many children living far from a big city. [...]. Many requests concern[ed] children or disabled people. In one case, Rynda found a volunteer who helped a young woman leave her flat for walks, something she could not do alone. In some cases, the platform helped to provide medicine.” In any event, an analysis of the needs posted to Rynda suggests that “the most needed resource is not the thing itself, but the capacity to take it to the person who needs it. Transportation becomes a crucial resource, especially in a country as big as Russia.”

Alas, “Despite the efforts to create a tool that would automatically match a request with a potential help provider, the capacity of the algorithm to optimize the allocation of resources was very limited.” To this end, like the Help Map initiative, digital volunteers who served as social moderators remained pivotal to the Virtual Ryndal platform. As Alexey notes, “We’ve never even got to the point of the discussion of more complex models of matching.” Perhaps Rynda should have included more structured categories to enable more automated-matching since the volunteer match-makers are simply not scalable. “Despite the intention that the ‘matchmaking’ algorithm would support the efficient allocation of resources between those in need and those who could help, the success of the ‘matchmaking’ depended on the work of the moderators, whose resources were limited. As a result, a gap emerged between the broad issues that the project could address and the limited resources of volunteers.”

To this end, Gregory readily admits that “the initial definition of the project as a general mutual aid platform may have been too broad and unspecific.” I agree with this diagnostic. Take the online dating platform Match.com for example. Match.com’s sole focus is online dating; Airbnb’s sole purpose is to match those looking for a place to stay with those offering their places; Uber’s sole purpose is matching those who need to get somewhere with a local car service. To this end, matching platform for mutual-aid may indeed been too broad—at least to begin with. Amazon began with books, but later diversified.

In any case, as Gregory rightly notes, “The relatively limited success of Rynda didn’t mean the failure of the idea of mutual aid. What [...] Rynda demonstrates is the variety of challenges encountered along the way of the project’s implementation.” To be sure, “Every society or community has an inherent potential mutual aid structure that can be strengthened and empowered. This is more visible in emergency situations; however, major mutual aid capacity building is needed in everyday, non-emergency situations.” Thanks to Gregory and team, future digital matchmakers can draw on the above insights and Rynda’s open source code when designing their own mutual-aid and self-help platforms.

For me, one of the key take-aways is the need for a scalable matching platform. Match.com would not be possible if the matching were done primarily manually. Nor would Match.com work as well if the company sought to match interests beyond the romantic domain. So a future Match.com for mutual-aid would need to include automated matching and begin with a very specific matching domain. 

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See also:

  • Using Waze, Uber, AirBnB, SeeClickFix for Disaster Response [link]
  • MatchApp: Next Generation Disaster Response App? [link]
  • A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response [link]