Satellite images have been used to support humanitarian efforts for decades. Why? A bird’s eye view of a disaster-affected area simply captures far more information than most Earth-based data-collection technologies can. In short, birds have more situational awareness than we do. In contrast to satellites, UAVs offer significantly higher-resolution imagery, are unobstructed by clouds, can be captured more quickly, by more groups and more often at a fraction of the cost with far fewer licensing and data-sharing restrictions than satellite imagery.
Introduction to UAVs
There are basically three types of UAVs: 1) the balloon/kite variety; 2) fixed-wing UAVs; 3) rotary-wing UAVs. While my forthcoming book looks at humanitarian applications of each type, I’ll focus on fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs here since these are of greatest interest to humanitarian organizations. These types of UAVs differ from traditional remote control planes and helicopters because they are programmable and intelligent. UAVs can be programmed to take-off, fly and land completely autonomously, for example. They often include intelligent flight stabilization features that adapt for changing wind speeds and other weather-related conditions. They also have a number of built-in fail-safe mechanisms; some of the newer UAVs even include automated collision avoidance systems.
Fixed-wing UAVs like senseFly’s eBees (above) are launched by hand and can land a wide variety of surfaces, requiring only a few meters of landing space. They fly autonomously along pre-programmed routes and also land themselves auto-matically. My colleague Adam from senseFly recently flew eBees to support recovery efforts in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. Adam is also on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators). Other fixed-wing UAVs are flown manually and require an airstrip for both manual take-off and landing. Rotary-wing UAVs, in contrast, are “helicopters” with three or more propellors. Quadcopters, for example, have four propellors, like the Huginn X1 below, which my colleague Liam Dawson, another Advisory Board member, flew following Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. One advantage of rotary-UAVs is that they take-off and land vertically. They can also hover in one fixed place and can also be programmed to fly over designated points.
Rotary-UAVs cannot glide like their fixed-wing counterparts, which means their batteries get used up fairly quickly. So they can’t stay airborne for very long (~25 minutes, 2 kilometer range, depending on the model) compared to fixed-wing UAVs like the eBee (~45 minutes, 3 kilometers). Advisory Board member Shane Coughlan is designing fixed-wing humanitarian UAVs that will have a range of several hundred kilometers. Fixed-wing UAVs, however, cannot hover in one place over time. So both types of UAVs come with their advantages and disadvantages. Most UAV experts agree that fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs can serve complementary purposes, however. You can quickly use a quadcopter to an initial aerial recon and then send a fixed-wing UAV for more detailed, high-resolution imagery capture.
Humanitarian Uses of UAVs
The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) has taken off much faster than I expected. More than 240 members in 32 countries have joined the network since it’s launch just a few weeks ago.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of humanitarian organizations that got in touch with me right after the launch. Many of them are just starting to explore this space. And I found it refreshing that every single one of them considers the case for humanitarian UAVs to be perfectly obvious. Almost all of the groups also mentioned how they would have made use of UAVs in recent disasters. Some are even taking steps now to set up rapid-response UAV teams.
My number one priority after launching the network was to start working on a Code of Conduct to guide the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings—the only one of it’s kind as far as I know. While I had initially sought to turn this Code of Conduct into a check-list, it became clear from the excellent feedback provided by members and the Advisory Board that we needed two separate documents. So my RA’s and I have created a more general Code of Conduct along with a more detailed operational check-list for flying UAVs in humanitarian settings. You’ll find the check-list here. Big thanks to Advisory Board member Gene Robinson for letting me draw on his excellent book for this check-list. Both the Code of Conduct and Check-List will continue to be updated on a monthly basis, so please do chime in and help us improve them.
Patrick Meier: Using Social Media to Monitor Local Impacts Invisible to Conventional Intelligence Sources and Methods
Using Social Media to Predict Economic Activity in Cities
Economic indicators in most developing countries are often outdated. A new study suggests that social media may provide useful economic signals when traditional economic data is unavailable. In “Taking Brazil’s Pulse: Tracking Growing Urban Economies from Online Attention” (PDF), the authors accurately predict the GDPs of 45 Brazilian cities by analyzing data from a popular micro-blogging platform (Yahoo Meme). To make these predictions, the authors used the concept of glocality, which notes that “economically successful cities tend to be involved in interactions that are both local and global at the same time.” The results of the study reveals that “a city’s glocality, measured with social media data, effectively signals the city’s economic well-being.”
Patrick Meier: Using Crowd Computing to Analyze UAV Imagery for Search & Rescue Operations — Starkly Opposite USAF Gorgon Stare in Cost, Utility, & Sensibility
My brother recently pointed me to this BBC News article on the use of drones for Search & Rescue missions in England’s Lake District, one of my favorite areas of the UK. The picture below is one I took during my most recent visit. In my earlier blog post on the use of UAVs for Search & Rescue operations, I noted that UAV imagery & video footage could be quickly analyzed using a microtasking platform (like MicroMappers, which we used following Typhoon Yolanda). As it turns out, an enterprising team at the University of Central Lancashire has been using microtasking as part of their UAV Search & Rescue exercises in the Lake District.
Every year, the Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team assists hundreds of injured and missing persons in the North of the Lake District. “The average search takes several hours and can require a large team of volunteers to set out in often poor weather conditions.” So the University of Central Lancashire teamed up with the Mountain Rescue Team to demonstrate that UAV technology coupled with crowdsourcing can reduce the time it takes to locate and rescue individuals.
Anyone working in digital can somewhat relate to the overuse of loosely defined marketing words – think ‘big data’ or ‘cloud computing’ (bzzzz). Growth hacking seems to be just another one of them.
In colloquial terms, growth hacking is associated with the exploitation of loopholes and the use of illegal techniques online to grow business development. Of course, in some cases this has been reality. When PayPal was first used on eBay, it was actually breaching the retailer’s T&C’s. Similarly, when Airbnb first started they poached their customers from Craigslist by spamming listings and inviting users to join their directory instead.
However, growth hacking can also simply be described as the ingenious use of tools, platforms and environments for business development, online AND offline – Google campus in East London, for example, is a good case of growth hacking taking place offline as start-ups use a shared working environment to maximise their potential. Online, growth hacking is the use of tracking and metric tools that teach us where our time is best spent; and the leveraging of platforms where target audiences and key players are.
‘Hacking’ does not necessarily equal to detrimental consequences for larger corporations either. Indeed, Paypal was then bought by eBay, and when Airbnb developed its interface it added the option to ‘post to Craigslist’.
Robert Young Pelton: Crowd-Funding and Crowd-Sourcing the Hunt for Joseph Kony — with Public Lessons Learned
As some of you know, I like to find people who don’t want to be found. Since the mid 90’s I have located and connected with over two dozen terrorist, criminal, jihadi and drug groups. The alphabet list of people I have tracked down and lived with include the taliban, FARC, LURD, al Qaeda, BRA, GIA, MILF, ABB, AUC, HEK, Haqqani, Shining Path, ADF, Chechens along with various mafyia, gang and drug groups. My resume includes correctly identifying the location of bin Laden and Zawahiri in 2003. I have spent significant time tracking the exact location and condition of hundreds of kidnap victims in Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia. I don’t come to this task lightly
I am trying a new concept. Crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing a real search for a dangerous group. Your dollars supports an expedition led by myself along with professionals on the ground. Our task is to locate Joseph Kony along with understanding and communicating why Kony has not been found. Then we also need to communicate our efforts, discoveries and lessons learned in an open transparent way. Only then can criminals realize that there is no place left on earth to hide.
Phi Beta Iota: Crowd-funding is raising money from an infinite diversity of sources. Crowd-sourcing is aggregating information from an infinite variety of sources. They are different. They go well together. This is an example of public intelligence in the public interest funded by the public, of, by, and with the public.
We will go deeply into how $200 million spent by charities and U.S. tax dollars have not resulted in the locating or capture of Kony . Our goal is not to critique but to enlighten our followers so that we can apply this model to other expeditions.