Unmanned “Unplugged”

Patrick Meier, iRevolution

Patrick Meier is the director of Social Innovation for Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), a National Geographic emerging explorer and a UNICEF Humanitarian Innovations fellow. He has worked with various humanitarian organizations to use technology, including UAS and social media, to respond to crises. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to Patrick about his work and how he integrates UAS technology into disaster response.

You are an explorer and “crisis mapper” for National Geographic. Can you tell us a little about what you do?

I team up with international humanitarian organizations to help them make the most of new technologies to improve their relief efforts worldwide. This ranges from deploying live crisis maps to making sense of Big Data generated during disasters. Crisis maps are simply digital maps that depict real-time information on a given disaster—such as needs and reports of damage—sourced from mainstream media, social media, SMS and satellite/aerial imagery, for example. Making sense of this data is becoming increasingly challenging, given the vast volume of information that gets generated during a disaster. To be sure, this overflow of information can be as paralyzing to humanitarian response as the lack of information.

So my team and I partner with humanitarian organizations to develop free and open source solutions that help them make sense of this Big (crisis) Data. We apply human computing (i.e. crowdsourcing and microtasking) and machine computing (i.e. artificial intelligence and machine learning) to develop these solutions.

Describe QCRI and what it can achieve. Do you have any plans of combining QCRI’s work with UAS?

QCRI is a unique research institute engaged in advanced computing research and development. The reason we’re unique is because we apply advanced computing to solve pressing challenging in the humanitarian space. One of these challenges revolves around damage assessments.

Today, it still takes 48 to 72 hours to acquire and analyze satellite imagery following a major disaster. Locally deployed UAS, in contrast, can capture aerial imagery at a far higher resolution in just a matter of hours. So we are applying QCRI’s expertise in advanced computing to rapidly analyze aerial imagery during disasters.

As a first step, we have developed a human computing platform called MicroMappers to rapidly crowdsource/microtask the analysis of said imagery. We plan to test this platform with DroneAdventures and SkyEye, Inc. in coming months. We’re also exploring the application of machine learning to automatically analyze aerial imagery. Lastly, we’ve launched the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) to catalyze information sharing, coordination and innovation in the use of UAS in humanitarian settings.

Your work brings the social media and satellite imagery worlds together. In what way does your work differ – and improve upon – traditional crisis mapping?

Combining social media with satellite and aerial imagery helps to augment and accelerate the situational awareness of humanitarian organizations during major disasters. In addition, combining this data helps us to verify “ground truth” social media reports. For example, if we identify multiple reports of damage via pictures posted to Twitter, we can compare those pictures with aerial imagery captured by UAS flying in those areas to confirm the damage. Having on-the-ground pictures taken by eyewitnesses and coupling these with oblique aerial images provides for a much more comprehensive and accurate assessment of disaster damage and resulting needs. In addition, having access to aerial imagery or high-resolution satellite imagery can help humanitarian organizations to geo-locate where pictures posted to social media were taken. Lastly, unlike satellites, UAS can carry small payloads, from additional sensors to first-aid kits, and assess a disaster’s impact on local communication infrastructure.

You’ve said before that “situational awareness is key to allocating resources and coordinating logistics.” How can UAS help with this?
UAS can be used to carry out rapid damage and needs assessments, enabling humanitarian organizations to more effectively and quickly prioritize their relief efforts. Without this kind of situational awareness, resources may end up being wrongly allocated. In fact, up to 60 percent of relief aid that is mobilized to a disaster zone is never used, which is simply unacceptable. In terms of logistics, UAS have already been used to assess the best transportation routes for aid delivery following major disasters. They’ve also been used to help clear debris and identify the most appropriate locations for humanitarians to set up their field headquarters.

How do UAS help responders ensure their response is right the first time? What is possible now that is otherwise impossible without these tools?

UAS can be used to make sure that hard-to-reach areas are not overlooked during humanitarian relief operations. Physical access is often a challenge following major disasters. This results in communities being completely cut off from relief efforts that tend to focus on disaster-affected communities that are easiest to reach.

With UAS local organizations and advocacy groups can place disconnected communities on the map. Groups like OpenRelief, the ShadowView Foundation, RPFlightSystems and other members of the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Advisory Board, are pushing the envelope with respect to new UAS.

OpenRelief, for example, has developed a low-cost UAS with a range of 200 to 300 kilometers. So UAS need not be deployed on site to capture much needed imagery. In addition to imagery, UAS can carry small payloads such as first-aid kits, leaflets with emergency information and even vaccines. One group, for example, is developing a fully autonomous hybrid UAS (fixed-wing and rotary-wing combination) that can carry one to two kilograms at a distance of 20 kilometers. The primary use of this UAS is to carry medication to community health workers in Africa and Asia. This is all very new for the international humanitarian community.

Photo: Patrick Meier

What is the Digital Humanitarian Network? Can you explain the mobilization process that takes place after a disaster strikes?

The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) serves as the official interface between established humanitarian organizations and tech-savvy digital volunteer groups from around the world. The latter provide humanitarian organizations with a unique surge capacity during disasters, enabling humanitarians to make sense of Big Data (like social media) generated during disasters. When a disaster strikes, humanitarian organizations formally activate the Digital Humanitarian Network to request assistance. Coordinators of the DHN subsequently identify which DHN members are best placed to carry out the mission. These members then work directly with the activating organization to provide them with the urgent support they require.

As someone who spends a great deal of time developing new technologies in the field, how do you see UAS technology evolving? What new roles can they play in the future?

As UAS technology continues to evolve, they’ll be coming increasingly accessible and democratized, enabling citizen journalists and others to capture what they’re seeing from a bird’s-eye view. I see aerial imagery becoming a new type of user-generated content or social media. Since the latter, social media, is already playing an important role in disaster response, I believe user-generated aerial content will play an equally important if not more vital role. This crowdsourced aerial social media will then be fused with social media and other data feeds to provide greater situational awareness during major disasters. Payload delivery may also play an increasingly important role vis-à-vis humanitarian UAS as well as other sensors.

What does that future hold for you and UAS? Do you have any other exciting research projects planned? What would you like to do next?

Other than this and the work on human computing and machine learning described above, I’m currently working on a crisis map for aerial videos captured by UAS during disasters. The purpose of this map is to crowdsource videos captured by members of the public to provide humanitarian organizations with additional information to carry out their rapid damage assessments following disasters. The digital map will be added to the UAViators website in August 2014.