Mapping, data collection, conducting headcounts of animals - drones are being put to use in myriad ways to assist in development and disaster relief. We spoke with the organisation Drone Adventures about the projects they are bringing to life in this field.
The relative low cost and speed with which drones can be put to use to gather data in particular regions has seen a number of activists and organisations of late make use of this technology to swiftly and safely obtain information. Founded in 2013 and based in Switzerland, Drone Adventures is an organisation that partners with activists, companies, individuals, insitutions and NGOs to bring to life projects that use drones to protect the planet; help people; and preserve culture.
Drone Adventures has realised projects that have helped map the Philippines after Taiphoon Haiyan; plot cleanup and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima; and created imagery and 3D models of areas still recovering from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, all through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. We recently spoke with co-founder and vice president of Drone Adventures, Emanuele Lubrano, to find out how (and why) they are using drones toward the greater good.
Drones have a controversial reputation. What made you want to use them for good?
Myself and other people volunteering at Drone Adventures also work for the Swiss drone manufacturing company senseFly. We know drones very well and we know that civil drones are completely harmless. We are also aware of the reputation that they have worldwide.
We wanted to do something to change the bad status they have. In fact, the whole goal of Drone Adventures is to demonstrate that drones can be used to do good things… even if lately, we love doing the good thing itself more and more.
Which issues do you specifically want to address using drones?
For the moment, we use the senseFly eBee drones a lot. These drones are principally used for aerial photography and maps. Therefore, our missions involve the generation of maps and 3D models or taking aerial photos.
Once the data is acquired, the possibilities to use it are basically endless. So we participate in missions with a really broad spectrum:
- Cartography to do a census of shantytowns
- 3D modelling to simulate the water flow in a ravine to help build dams
- Animal counting in the Savanna for nature protection
- Cartography of landmine fields
- General 2D maps or 3D models for surveys, delivered directly to local people, in order to self-administrate themselves
- Archaeology (2D maps and 3D models)
- Post-disaster assessment
People currently buy and use civil drones for several applications (mapping, agriculture, etc). From our side, we try to push the limit of this technology, selecting missions that can’t be defined as “standard”.
Could you please briefly explain your process (i.e. selecting projects to work on, developing a plan of action and how you carry out your work)?
Generally, we are contacted by an organisation of any kind that needs data (2D or 3D model of a certain location). We select the projects that have a real interest from a humanitarian, nature-conservation or cultural [viewpoint]. Also, the project has to lead to a concrete application (like building a bridge or shelter, helping people, saving animals, etc), so that we can show real results in the end. We also like to aim for missions that are not standard i.e. where there is a certain difficulty in flying drones.
Once the choice has been made, we move to the location for 1-2 weeks with our drones. [Once on site,] we try to understand what the best pictures would be that we could take in order to fit the final application in our contact. Then, we fly the drones and we obtain aerial images.
We come back to our base in Switzerland and we perform the data processing. This consists of stitching together all the photos taken by the drones in order to generate maps or 3D models.
The data is then delivered to our client who will then use it for its final application.
What are some of the highlights of the projects you've undertaken?
Even though Drone Adventures is a little more than two years old, we have already done a lot of interesting projects. Every project is a story on its own, an adventure to live with, [offering] places to discover and new people to meet. I would say that every time, [we have] a different life experience that enriches all of us.
For example...meeting the people in Haiti has been incredible for me. Or...going to Lima to help the local people has been a completely different experience than going there as a tourist. It has also been unbelievable to work in the Savanna in Namibia, having a semi-desert area as an office for a few days with the wildlife surrounding us.
What are some of the challenges you face when working in this field?
Even if drones generally have a bad reputation, we have never had challenges from this side. The senseFly drones we use look completely harmless so people [that are] curious come and see how we work, how the drone is deployed and how it lands. So, the challenges we have had until now were more on the technical side (flying in narrow valleys, flying at high altitudes, trying to land in tiny spots etc).
What are the future plans for Drone Adventures?
The future for us is continuing to do what we have done until now, trying to do it better and bigger. We want to consolidate partnerships with our technology partners and our clients. We would also love to start to have different “bases” around the world where we could deploy our team faster. Maybe having local teams that are trained to act fast in case of natural disasters or to provide constant aid to a certain cause.
Broadly speaking, what role do you think digital tools can play in humanitarian and environmental issues?
Technology will play THE important role in the coming years in all that is humanitarian, conservation and cultural preservation. I saw it with my eyes. Technology - especially when cheap and easy to use - literally empowers local people to help themselves. It is incredible how it is now possible to locate people that need help after a disaster [using] Twitter and smartphones. I heard of another interesting project that can transform any smartphone into a very good tool for ophthalmologists by adding a small lens onto the camera.
I have friends that develop equipment to perform radiography in the [developing] world or startups using cheap mass-production techniques to build a cheap and strong configurable prosthesis for people that have lost a leg after walking on a mine. There are plenty of examples like this in all possible domains. Drones are only a part of it and our application in particular allows people to have cheap, precise and updated maps of a place of interest, to perform a census, surveys, simulation, animal counting, agriculture surveys and more. The possibilities are endless!
Head to the Drone Adventures website for more on what they do.
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