Category Archives: Crisis Mapping

Live: Crowdsourced Crisis Map of UAV/Aerial Videos for Disaster Response

The first version of the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Crisis Map of UAV/aerial videos is now live on the Network’s website. The crowdsourced map features dozens of aerial videos of recent disasters. Like social media, this new medium—user-generated (aerial) content—can be used by humanitarian organizations to complement their damage assessments and thus improve situational awareness.

UAViators Map

The purpose of this Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) map is not only to provide humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected communities with an online repository of aerial information on disaster damage to augment their situational awareness; this crisis map also serves to raise awareness on how to safely & responsibly use small UAVs for rapid damage assessments. This explains why users who upload new content to the map must confirm that they have read the UAViator‘s Code of Conduct. They also have to confirm that the videos conform to the Network’s mission and that they do not violate privacy or copyrights. In sum, the map seeks to crowdsource both aerial footage and critical thinking for the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

UAViators Map 4

As noted above, this is the first version of the map, which means several other features are currently in the works. These new features will be rolled out incrementally over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, feel free to suggest any features you’d like to see in the comments section below. Thank you.

Bio

  • 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]
  • Using UAVs for Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]

The Filipino Government’s Official Strategy on Crisis Hashtags

As noted here, the Filipino Government has had an official strategy on promoting the use of crisis hashtags since 2012. Recently, the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) and the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson (PCDSPO-OPS) have kindly shared their their 7-page strategy (PDF), which I’ve summarized below.

Gov Twitter

The Filipino government first endorsed the use of the #rescuePH and #reliefPH in August 2012, when the country was experiencing storm-enhanced monsoon rains. These were initiatives from the private sector. Enough people were using the hashtags to make them trend for days. Eventually, we adopted the hashtags in our tweets for disseminating government advisories, and for collecting reports from the ground. We also ventured into creating new hashtags, and into convincing media outlets to use unified hashtags.” For new hashtags, “The convention is the local name of the storm + PH (e.g., #PabloPH, #YolandaPH). In the case of the heavy monsoon, the local name of the monsoon was used, plus the year (i.e., #Habagat2013).” After agreeing on the hashtags, ” the OPS issued an official statement to the media and the public to carry these hashtags when tweeting about weather-related reports.”

The Office of the Presidential Spokesperson (OPS) would then monitor the hashtags and “made databases and lists which would be used in aid of deployed government frontline personnel, or published as public information.” For example, the OPS  “created databases from reports from #rescuePH, containing the details of those in need of rescue, which we endorsed to the National Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Transportation and Communications. Needless to say, we assumed that the databases we created using these hashtags would be contaminated by invalid reports, such as spam & other inappropriate messages. We try to filter out these erroneous or malicious reports, before we make our official endorsements to the concerned agencies. In coordination with officers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, we also monitored the hashtag #reliefPH in order to identify disaster survivors who need food and non-food supplies.”

During Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), “the unified hashtag #RescuePH was used to convey lists of people needing help.” This information was then sent to to the National Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council so that these names could be “included in their lists of people/communities to attend to.” This rescue hashtag was also “useful in solving surplus and deficits of goods between relief operations centers.” So the government encouraged social media users to coordinate their #ReliefPH efforts with the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s on-the-ground relief-coordination efforts. The Government also “created an infographic explaining how to use the hashtag #RescuePH.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 10.10.51 AM

Earlier, during the 2012 monsoon rains, the government “retweeted various updates on the rescue and relief operations using the hashtag #SafeNow. The hashtag is used when the user has been rescued or knows someone who has been rescued. This helps those working on rescue to check the list of pending affected persons or families, and update it.”

The government’s strategy document also includes an assessment on their use of unified hashtags during disasters. On the positive side, “These hashtags were successful at the user level in Metro Manila, where Internet use penetration is high. For disasters in the regions, where internet penetration is lower, Twitter was nevertheless useful for inter-sector (media – government – NGOs) coordination and information dissemination.” Another positive was the use of a unified hashtag following the heavy monsoon rains of 2012, “which had damaged national roads, inconvenienced motorists, and posing difficulty for rescue operations. After the floods subsided, the government called on the public to identify and report potholes and cracks on the national highways of Metro Manila by tweeting pictures and details of these to the official Twitter account [...] , and by using the hashtag #lubak2normal. The information submitted was entered into a database maintained by the Department of Public Works and Highways for immediate action.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 10.32.57 AM

The hashtag was used “1,007 times within 2 hours after it was launched. The reports were published and locations mapped out, viewable through a page hosted on the PCDSPO website. Considering the feedback, we considered the hashtag a success. We attribute this to two things: one, we used a platform that was convenient for the public to report directly to the government; and two, the hashtag appealed to humor (lubak means potholes or rubble in the vernacular). Furthermore, due to the novelty of it, the media had no qualms helping us spread the word. All the reports we gathered were immediately endorsed [...] for roadwork and repair.” This example points to the potential expanded use of social media and crowdsourcing for rapid damage assessments.

On the negative side, the use of #SafeNow resulted mostly in “tweets promoting #safenow, and very few actually indicating that they have been successfully rescued and/or are safe.” The most pressing challenge, however, was filtering. “In succeeding typhoons/instances of flooding, we began to have a filtering problem, especially when high-profile Twitter users (i.e., pop-culture celebrities) began to promote the hashtags through Twitter. The actual tweets that were calls for rescue were being drowned by retweets from fans, resulting in many nonrescue-related tweets [...].” This explains the need for Twitter monitoring platforms like AIDR, which is free and open source.

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Zoomanitarians: Using Citizen Science and Next Generation Satellites to Accelerate Disaster Damage Assessments

Zoomanitarians has been in the works for well over a year, so we’re excited to be going fully public for the first time. Zoomanitarians is a joint initiative between Zooniverse (Brook Simmons), Planet Labs (Alex Bakir) and myself at QCRI. The purpose of Zoomanitarians is to accelerate disaster damage assessments by leveraging Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites and Zooniverse’s highly scalable microtasking platform. As I noted in this earlier post, digital volunteers from Zooniverse tagged well over 2 million satellite images (of Mars, below) in just 48 hours. So why not invite Zooniverse volunteers to tag millions of images taken by Planet Labs following major disasters (on Earth) to help humanitarians accelerate their damage assessments?

Zooniverse Planet 4

That was the question I posed to Brooke and Alex in early 2013. “Why not indeed?” was our collective answer. So we reached out to several knowledgeable colleagues of mine including Kate Chapman from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Lars Bromley from UNOSAT for their feedback and guidance on the idea.

We’ll be able to launch our first pilot project later this year thanks to Kate who kindly provided us with very high-resolution UAV/aerial imagery of downtown Tacloban in the Philippines. Why do we want said imagery when the plan is to use Planet Labs imagery? Because Planet Labs imagery is currently available at 3-5 meter resolution so we’ll be “degrading” the resolution of the aerial imagery to determine just what level and type of damage can be captured at various resolutions as compared to the imagery from Planet Labs. The pilot project will therefore serve to (1) customize & test the Zoomanitarians microtasking platform and (2) determine what level of detail can be captured at various resolutions.

PlanetLabs

We’ll then spend the remainder of the year improving the platform based on the results of the pilot project during which time I will continue to seek input from humanitarian colleagues. Zooniverse’s microtasking platform has already been stress-tested extensively over the years, which is one reason why I approached Zooniverse last year. The other reason is that they have over 1 million digital volunteers on their list-serve. Couple this with Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites, and you’ve got the potential for near real-time satellite imagery analysis for disaster response. Our plan is to produce “heat maps” based on the results and to share shape files as well for overlay on other maps.

It took imagery analysts well over 48 hours to acquire and analyze satellite imagery following Typhoon Yolanda. While Planet Labs imagery is not (yet) available at high-resolutions, our hope is that Zoomanitarians will be able to acquire and analyze relevant imagery within 12-24 hours of a request. Several colleagues have confirmed to me that the results of this rapid analysis will also prove invaluable for subsequent, higher-resolution satellite imagery acquisition and analysis. On a related note, I hope that our rapid satellite-based damage assessments will also serve as a triangulation mechanism (ground-truthing) for the rapid social-media-driven damage assessments carried out using the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform and MicroMappers.

While much work certainly remains, and while Zoomanitairans is still in the early phases of research and development, I’m nevertheless excited and optimistic about the potential impact—as are my colleagues Brooke and Alex. We’ll be announcing the date of the pilot later this summer, so stay tuned for updates!

Welcome to the Humanitarian UAV Network

UAViators Logo

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is now live. Click here to access and join the network. Advisors include representatives from 3D Robotics, AirDroids, senseFly & DroneAdventures, OpenRelief, ShadowView Foundation, ICT4Peace Foundation, the United Nations and more. The website provides a unique set of resources, including the most comprehensive case study of humanitarian UAV deployments, a directory of organizations engaged in the humanitarian UAV space and a detailed list of references to keep track of ongoing research in this rapidly evolving area. All of these documents along with the network’s Code of Conduct—the only one of it’s kind—are easily accessible here.

UAViators 4 Teams

The UAViators website also includes 8 action-oriented Teams, four of which are displayed above. The Flight Team, for example, includes both new and highly experienced UAV pilots while the Imagery Team comprises members interested in imagery analysis. Other teams include the Camera, Legal and Policy Teams. In addition to this Team page, the site also has a dedicated Operations page to facilitate & coordinate safe and responsible UAV deployments in support of humanitarian efforts. In between deployments, the website’s Global Forum is a place where members share information about relevant news, events and more. One such event, for example, is the upcoming Drone/UAV Search & Rescue Challenge that UAViators is sponsoring.

When first announcing this initiative,  I duly noted that launching such a network will at first raise more questions than answers, but I welcome the challenge and believe that members of UAViators are well placed to facilitate the safe and responsible use of UAVs in a variety of humanitarian contexts.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to colleagues and members of the Advisory Board who provided invaluable feedback and guidance in the lead-up to this launch. The Humanitarian UAV Network is result of collective vision and effort.

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See also:

  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search and Rescue [link]

Crisis Mapping without GPS Coordinates

I recently spoke with a UK start-up that is doing away with GPS coordinates even though their company focuses on geographic information and maps. The start-up, What3Words, has divided the globe into 57 trillion squares and given each of these 3-by-3 meter areas a unique three-word code. Goodbye long postal addresses and cryptic GPS coordinates. Hello planet.inches.most. The start-up also offers a service called OneWord, which allows you to customize a one-word name for any square. In addition, the company has expanded to other languages such as Spanish, Swedish and Russian. They’re now working on including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and others by mid-January 2014. Meanwhile, their API lets anyone build new applications that tap their global map of 57 trillion squares.

Credit: What3Words

When I spoke with CEO Chris Sheldrick, he noted that their very first users were emergency response organizations. One group in Australia, for example, is using What3Words as part of their SMS emergency service. “This will let people identify their homes with just three words, ensuring that emergency vehicles can find them as quickly as possible.” Such an approach provides greater accuracy, which is vital in rural areas. “Our ambulances have a terrible time with street addresses, particularly in The Bush.” Moreover, many places in the world have no addresses at all. So What3Words may also be useful for certain ICT4D projects in addition to crisis mapping. The real key to this service is simplicity, i.e., communicating three words over the phone, via SMS/Twitter or email is far easier (and less error prone) than dictating a postal address or a complicated set of GPS coordinates.

Credit: What3Words

How else do you think this service could be used vis-à-vis disaster response?

Bio

Crisis Mapping in Areas of Limited Statehood

I had the great pleasure of contributing a chapter to this new book recently published by Oxford University Press: Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood. My chapter addresses the application of crisis mapping to areas of limited statehood, drawing both on theory and hands-on experience. The short introduction to my chapter is provided below to help promote and disseminate the book.

Collection-national-flags

Introduction

Crises often challenge or limit statehood and the delivery of government services. The concept of “limited statehood” thus allows for a more realistic description of the territorial and temporal variations of governance and service delivery. Total statehood, in any case, is mostly imagined—a cognitive frame or pre-structured worldview. In a sense, all states are “spatially challenged” in that the projection of their governance is hardly enforceable beyond a certain geographic area and period of time. But “limited statehood” does not imply the absence of governance or services. Rather, these may simply take on alternate forms, involving procedures that are non-institutional (see Chapter 1). Therein lies the tension vis-à-vis crises, since “the utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations” (Scott 1998). Crises, by definition, publicly disrupt these orderly administrative constructs. They are brutal audits of governance structures, and the consequences can be lethal for state continuity. Recall the serious disaster response failures that occurred following the devastating cyclone of 1970 in East Pakistan.

To this day, Cyclone Bhola still remains the most deadly cyclone on record, killing some 500,000 people. The lack of timely and coordinated government response was one of the triggers for the war of independence that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh (Kelman 2007). While crises can challenge statehood, they also lead to collective, self-help behavior among disaster-affected communities—particularly in areas of limited statehood. Recently, this collective action—facilitated by new information and communication technologies—has swelled and resulted in the production of live crisis maps that identify the disaggregated, raw impact of a given crisis along with resulting needs for services typically provided by the government (see Chapter  7). These crisis maps are sub-national and are often crowdsourced in near real-time. They empirically reveal the limited contours of governance and reframe how power is both perceived and projected (see Chapter 8).

Indeed, while these live maps outline the hollows of governance during times of upheaval, they also depict the full agency and public expression of citizens who self-organize online and offline to fill these troughs with alternative, parallel forms of services and thus governance. This self-organization and public expression also generate social capital between citizen volunteers—weak and strong ties that nurture social capital and facilitate future collective action both on and offline.

The purpose of this chapter is to analyze how the rise of citizen-generated crisis maps replaces governance in areas of limited statehood and to distill the conditions for their success. Unlike other chapters in this book, the analysis below focuses on a variable that has been completely ignored in the literature:  digital social capital. The chapter is thus structured as follows. The first section provides a brief introduction to crisis mapping and frames this overview using James Scott’s discourse from Seeing Like a State (1998). The next section briefly highlights examples of crisis maps in action—specifically those responding to natural disasters, political crises, and contested elections. The third section provides a broad comparative analysis of these case studies, while the fourth section draws on the findings of this analysis to produce a list of ingredients that are likely to render crowdsourced crisis-mapping more successful in areas of limited statehood. These ingredients turn out to be factors that nurture and thrive on digital social capital such as trust, social inclusion, and collective action. These drivers need to be studied and monitored as conditions for successful crisis maps and as measures of successful outcomes of online digital collaboration. In sum, digital crisis maps both reflect and change social capital.

Bio

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]

Yes, I’m Writing a Book (on Digital Humanitarians)

I recently signed a book deal with Taylor & Francis Press. The book, which is tentatively titled “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Disaster Response,” is slated to be published next year. The book will chart the rise of digital humanitarian response from the Haiti Earthquake to 2015, highlighting critical lessons learned and best practices. To this end, the book will draw on real-world examples of digital humanitarians in action to explain how they use new technologies and crowdsourcing to make sense of “Big (Crisis) Data”. In sum, the book will describe how digital humanitarians & humanitarian technologies are together reshaping the humanitarian space and what this means for the future of disaster response. The purpose of this book is to inspire and inform the next generation of (digital) humanitarians while serving as a guide for established humanitarian organizations & emergency management professionals who wish to take advantage of this transformation in humanitarian response.

2025

The book will thus consolidate critical lessons learned in digital humanitarian response (such as the verification of social media during crises) so that members of the public along with professionals in both international humanitarian response and domestic emergency management can improve their own relief efforts in the face of “Big Data” and rapidly evolving technologies. The book will also be of interest to academics and students who wish to better understand methodological issues around the use of social media and user-generated content for disaster response; or how technology is transforming collective action and how “Big Data” is disrupting humanitarian institutions, for example. Finally, this book will also speak to those who want to make a difference; to those who of you who may have little to no experience in humanitarian response but who still wish to help others affected during disasters—even if you happen to be thousands of miles away. You are the next wave of digital humanitarians and this book will explain how you can indeed make a difference.

The book will not be written in a technical or academic writing style. Instead, I’ll be using a more “storytelling” form of writing combined with a conversational tone. This approach is perfectly compatible with the clear documentation of critical lessons emerging from the rapidly evolving digital humanitarian space. This conversational writing style is not at odds with the need to explain the more technical insights being applied to develop next generation humanitarian technologies. Quite on the contrary, I’ll be using intuitive examples & metaphors to make the most technical details not only understandable but entertaining.

While this journey is just beginning, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to my mentors for their invaluable feedback on my book proposal. I’d also like to express my deep gratitude to my point of contact at Taylor & Francis Press for championing this book from the get-go. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to sincerely thank the Rockefeller Foundation for providing me with a residency fellowship this Spring in order to accelerate my writing.

I’ll be sure to provide an update when the publication date has been set. In the meantime, many thanks for being an iRevolution reader!

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The Best of iRevolution in 2013

iRevolution crossed the 1 million hits mark in 2013, so big thanks to iRevolution readers for spending time here during the past 12 months. This year also saw close to 150 new blog posts published on iRevolution. Here is a short selection of the Top 15 iRevolution posts of 2013:

How to Create Resilience Through Big Data
[Link]

Humanitarianism in the Network Age: Groundbreaking Study
[Link]

Opening Keynote Address at CrisisMappers 2013
[Link]

The Women of Crisis Mapping
[Link]

Data Protection Protocols for Crisis Mapping
[Link]

Launching: SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response
[Link]

MicroMappers: Microtasking for Disaster Response
[Link]

AIDR: Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response
[Link]

Social Media, Disaster Response and the Streetlight Effect
[Link]

Why the Share Economy is Important for Disaster Response
[Link]

Automatically Identifying Fake Images on Twitter During Disasters
[Link]

Why Anonymity is Important for Truth & Trustworthiness Online
[Link]

How Crowdsourced Disaster Response Threatens Chinese Gov
[Link]

Seven Principles for Big Data and Resilience Projects
[Link]

#NoShare: A Personal Twist on Data Privacy
[Link]

I’ll be mostly offline until February 1st, 2014 to spend time with family & friends, and to get started on a new exciting & ambitious project. I’ll be making this project public in January via iRevolution, so stay tuned. In the meantime, wishing iRevolution readers a very Merry Happy Everything!

santahat

How UAVs Are Making a Difference in Disaster Response

I visited the University of Torino in 2007 to speak with the team developing UAVs for the World Food Program. Since then, I’ve bought and tested two small UAVs of my own so I can use this new technology to capture aerial imagery during disasters; like the footage below from the Philippines.

UAVs, or drones, have a very strong military connotation for many of us. But so did space satellites before Google Earth brought satellite imagery into our homes and changed our perceptions of said technology. So it stands to reason that UAVs and aerial imagery will follow suit. This explains why I’m a proponent of the Drone Social Innovation Award, which seeks to promote the use of civilian drone technology for the benefit of humanity. I’m on the panel of judges for this award, which is why I reached out to DanOffice IT, a Swiss-based company that deployed two drones in response to Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The drones in question are Huginn X1’s, which have a flight time of 25 minutes with a range of 2 kilometers and maximum altitude of 150 meters.

HUGINN X1

I recently spoke with one of the Huginn pilots who was in Tacloban. He flew the drone to survey shelter damage, identify blocked roads and search for bodies in the debris (using thermal imaging cameras mounted on the drone for the latter). The imagery captured also helped to identify appropriate locations to set up camp. When I asked the pilot whether he was surprised by anything during the operation, he noted that road-clearance support was not a use-case he had expected. I’ll be meeting with him in Switzerland in the next few weeks to test-fly a Huginn and explore possible partnerships.

I’d like to see closer collaboration between the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and groups like DanOffice, for example. Providing DHN-member Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOTosm) with up-to-date aerial imagery during disasters would be a major win. This was the concept behind OpenAerialMap, which was first discussed back in 2007. While the initiative has yet to formally launch, PIX4D is a platform that “converts thousands of aerial images, taken by lightweight UAV or aircraft into geo-referenced 2D mosaics and 3D surface models and point clouds.”

Drone Adventures

This platform was used in Haiti with the above drones. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) partnered with Drone Adventures to map over 40 square kilometers of dense urban territory including several shantytowns in Port-au-Prince, which was “used to count the number of tents and organize a ‘door-to-door’ census of the population, the first step in identifying aid requirements and organizing more permanent infrastructure.” This approach could also be applied to IDP and refugee camps in the immediate aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster. All the data generated by Drone Adventures was made freely available through OpenStreetMap.

If you’re interested in giving “drones for social good” a try, I recommend looking at the DJI Phantom and the AR.Drone Parrot. These are priced between $300- $600, which beats the $50,000 price tag of the Huginn X1.

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