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Aerial Robotics in the Land of the Buddha

Buddhist Temples adorn Nepal’s blessed land. Their stupas, like Everest, stretch to the heavens, yearning to democratize the sky. I felt the same yearning after arriving in Kathmandu with our UAVs. While some prefer the word “drone” over “UAVs”, the reason our Nepali partners don’t like the word drone dates back some 3,000 years to the spiritual epic Mahabharata (Great Story of Bharatas). The ancient story features Drona, a master of advanced military arts who slayed hundreds of thousands with his bow & arrows. This strong military connotation explains why our Nepalis use “UAV” instead, which is the term we also used for our Humanitarian UAV Mission in the land of Buddha. Our purpose: to democratize the sky.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are aerial robots. They are the first wave of robotics to impact the humanitarian space. The mission of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is to enable the safe, responsible and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian and development settings. We want to empower local partners with robotics. As Founder of UAViators, I had the honor of spearheading a unique and weeklong UAV Mission in Nepal last month in close collaboration with Kathmandu University (KU), Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), Community Disaster Management Committee (CDMC) #9 Ward, Kirtipur, DJI andPix4D. This mission represents the first major milestone for Kathmandu Flying Labs. 

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Debris left over from the tragic earthquakes in April & Map 2015. Credit: Patrick Meier

Our friends at CDMC-9 invited us to survey their town of Panga, which had been severely affected by the earthquake just months earlier. They were particularly keen to gain access to better data. Very high-resolution aerial imagery of the area would give them much better data to inform their rebuilding efforts. So we spent a full day flying half-a-dozen Phantom 3’s over parts of Panga as requested by our local partners.

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Patrick Meier flying the DJI Phantom 3 in Nepal. Credit: DJI.
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Patrick Meier flying the DJI Phantom 3 in Nepal. Credit: DJI.

We thought we had completed our mission after a full day of flying. But our Nepali partners politely noted that we had not in fact finished the job; we still had a lot more area to cover. They wanted us back in Panga the following day to complete the aerial surveys. This threw a bit of wrench in our plans; we were on a tight schedule and I had a return flight to catch. But this was the best possible wrench. This wrench meant that we were at the right place at the right time; that we were making a difference. So I canceled my flight and stayed out. We returned to Panga the next day and flew dozens of additional UAV flights from sunup to sunset. Our local partners were absolutely invaluable throughout since they were the ones informing the flight plans. They also made it possible for us to launch and land all our flights from the highest rooftops across town. With more than 800 aerial photographs in hand, the Pix4D team worked through the night to produce a very high-resolution orthorectified mosaic of Panga. The results including the 3D models and more are available here.

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Our local partners work with us to program the UAV flights. Credit Patrick Meier.

While this technically meant that we had successfully completed our mission, it didn’t feel finished to me. I really wanted to unlock and “liberate” the data completely and place it directly into the hands of the CDCM and the local community in Panga. What’s the point of “open data” if most of Panga’s residents do not have easy access to computers and are thus unable to view or interact with the resulting maps? So I asked our local partners if we could print out our maps on large, rollable and warterpoof banners (which are more durable than paper-based maps).

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Our CDMC friend unrolls our banner map to share the results of all the flying with the local community. Credit: Patrick Meier
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Local community members discuss the map, which is the highest resolution map ever produced of their town. Credit: Patrick Meier
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Our CDMC friends explain the purpose of the map and invite the local community to add relevant information to the map. Credit: Patrick Meier

We gave these banner-maps back to the local community and invited them to hack the maps. How? Directly, by physically adding their local knowledge to the map; knowledge about the location of debris, temporary shelters, drinking water and lots more. We brought tape and color-coded paper with us to code this knowledge so that the community could annotate the map themselves.

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We crowdsource local knowledge by inviting community members to mark where these features appear on the map. Credit: Meier

The result was a social intelligence layer that provided rich contextual information to further inform the rebuilding process. This crowdsourced crisis map of Panga also enabled everyone to participate. And so, for the first time ever, the community of Panga was working off the one and same dataset to discuss their recovery strategies. In sum, our humanitarian mission combined aerial robotics, computer vision, waterproof banners, tape, paper and crowdsourcing to inform the rebuilding process at the community level.

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Using colored pieces of paper, scissors and tape, members of the local community got to work. Credit: Patrick Meier

 

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This approach to community mapping is more democratic, enabling greater participation from the local community. Credit: Patrick Meier

 

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Our CDMC friends discuss priority areas for the rebuilding and restruction with the local community. Credit: Patrick Meier

 

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Within minutes, community members had added a detailed social intelligence layer to the base map. Credit: Patrick Meier

 

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Participants of all ages joined the mapping and conversations. Credit: Patrick Meier

 

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The map was later attached to the side of an abandoned building. Community conversations continued. Credit: Patrick Meier.

 

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When we left Panga, community members were still discussing the map and the 50+ markers they had added. Credit: Patrick Meier

The engagement from the community was phenomenal and definitely the highlight of the mission. Our CDMC partners were equally thrilled and excited with the community engagement that the maps elicited. There were smiles all around. When we left Panga some four hours later, dozens of community members were still discussing the map, which our partners had hung up near a popular local teashop.

Thanks to our partnership with DJI and Pix4D, our partners at Kathmandu University (KU) and Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) also received 10 free UAVs (Phantom 3’s) from DJI and free access to the Pix4D software. In sum, the purpose of UAViators and our Flying Labs is not only to transfer skills and knowledge, or to simply generate much needed aerial data for local partners. We also endeavor to empower our local partners with the technologies they need to democratize the sky and carry out their own Humanitarian UAV Missions.

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We’re now busy planning a follow up mission to Nepal for early next year. We’ll be returning to Kathmandu Flying Labs (KFL) with new technology partners to train students at KU and colleagues at KLL on how to use fixed-wing UAVs for large scale mapping efforts. In the meantime, we’re exploring the possibility of launching Jakarta Flying Labs, Monrovia Flying Labs and Santiago Flying Labs in 2016. And we need your help. I’m quitting my day job next week to devote myself full time to these efforts. So please help our Nepali friends ensure that Kathmandu Flying Labs takes-off and becomes a thriving and sustainable social entrepreneurship lab. We’re actively looking for partners and sponsors to make all this happen, so please do get in touch if you share our vision and want to join us on future missions. And if you can’t be with us in person, you can always join our missions live via our Twitter feed. In the meantime, big, big thanks to our Nepali and technology partners for making our good work together possible.

Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging ExplorerHe is an internationally recognized thought leader on humanitarian technology and innovation. Patrick is also the Founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) and the author of the new book “Digital Humanitarians” which has been endorsed by the UN, World Bank, Red Cross, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, LinkedIn, Twitter and National Geographic.Patrick also authors the widely respected iRevolution blog and tweets at @patrickmeier. In November, Patrick will be leaving his position as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) to pursue his passion in “Aid Robotics”.