Opinion: Where’s the action with drones for development?

UNITAR humanitarian reconnaissance drone during the Open Day at the U.N.'s Geneva office. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / UN Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

Measuring indicators of human welfare and economic development is particularly challenging in remote and low-resource settings. The international development community has been abuzz about the promise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to improve access to data and mapping in developing countries — for everything from humanitarian response, to agricultural planning and conservation monitoring.

To learn more about state of the art commercial drone use and to gain insights for potential applications in development, I joined the DroneDeploy inaugural user conference last November in San Francisco.

DroneDeploy offers cloud-based software that allows users to upload images from any device and generate, analyze and share high-resolution 3D maps and models. DroneDeploy also allows users to automate flights, capturing and processing targeted imagery for immediate decision-making. This instant analysis capability incorporates orthorectification, topographic modeling and normalized difference vegetation index analysis. It is also possible to measure exact distances, areas, and volumes, take notes and attach photos to add ground-truth to maps.

Drones for public works

There are clear applications of this technology for inspections of public works — from time series imagery of construction sites to audits of completed work, ensuring compliance with building regulations. We can also imagine drones being used to monitor compliance of mining operations with regulations. In developing countries, these functions currently require human auditors, which often creates opportunities for patronage and corruption. Drones could also simplify auditing in parts of the world where transportation infrastructure is weak and it is difficult to deploy human inspectors.

A number of speakers at the conference talked about the advantages that drones have introduced to their respective fields within the private sector. Hunter Cole from the Virtual Design and Construction Team at Brasfield & Gorrie works with drone-flight operators to conduct aerial site surveys for their construction projects. Aerial surveys are cheaper, faster and more accurate than field surveys using human surveyors. Christopher Bartlett, director of technology, utility services at USIC, uses drones to more efficiently inspect infrastructure, including pipelines, towers and utilities. Shelly Engel, owner of Bon Air Drone, works with the mining industry to survey quarry sites and generate contour maps using DroneDeploy.

Drones for agriculture

Agriculture is predicted to be the largest sector using drones in the U.S. and the second largest in the world in five years. The ability to cheaply and rapidly measure plot-level outcomes of agricultural experiments could accelerate the identification of best practices for small-scale farmers in developing countries. The question is how accurate these measurements are, and how they compare with “gold standard” techniques for yield estimation, such as crop-cutting.

Farmers at the Drone Deploy conference owned large fields, unlike the smallholder farmers who dominate agriculture in the developing world. Chad Colby, a leading industry advocate for the use of unmanned aerial systems, demonstrated how the DroneDeploy software detects the effects of different treatments of nitrogen on corn fields. He claimed we are three years away from having ag-sensing systems consisting of sensors deployed on the ground that communicate with flying drones. For example, a device could send an alert about a plot’s low soil moisture or nutrient deficit, and a drone would automatically be deployed to map the area and process the data. If the data suggest a specific intervention, another drone could be deployed to apply a treatment.

Drones for humanitarian relief

In delivery drones, scrappy can beat costly

Field tests of drones in the Amazon Rainforest hold important lessons for anyone considering use cases for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for humanitarian aid, development or environmental conservation.

Drones are already being deployed in a variety of humanitarian efforts. Robotics and UAS expert Patrick Meier is pushing to develop guidelines to inform safe, responsible and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian settings. He spearheaded the World Bank’s UAV mission in response to Cyclone Pam in the Pacific, coordinated U.N. UAV teams responding to the Nepal earthquakes and to typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and organizes professional UAV trainings for humanitarian organizations.

The introduction of open-source platforms in drone software is an important step in making UAS more and more tailored to applications in global development. If drones truly were to become a tool applicable to developing world contexts, such platforms would enable actors such as academics or NGOs to develop apps that respond to their specific research and aid necessities. The launch of the DroneDeploy app market at the conference shows that even the commercial drone industry has interest in linking up software platforms with other leading products and enabling other developers to build apps that respond to specific industry necessities.

The challenges

There are a number of challenges facing the future of drone use in global development beyond just the technical hurdles such as data storage, memory, and power management. Developing countries need to create the legislative framework that regulates UAV use following India’s example. Also, the quality of the data is of the utmost importance when assessing the potential use of UAVs in development. There have been few published studies benchmarking the quality of drone-generated mapping data against ground surveys or other aerial survey methods. One of these studies explored the use of UAV Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, sensor to measure diameter-at-breast-heigh in below-canopy forest surveys. Even though the UAV-based DBH estimates of detected trees were positively correlated with the human-based estimates, the DBH errors were larger than those from studies using bulkier ground-based LiDAR. Nevertheless, the researchers foresee a broader range of applications for below-canopy UAV-based forest surveying in the future, in conjunction with traditional field surveys, above-canopy remote sensing and ground-based LiDAR.

A World Bank experiment examined different ways to measure crop residue coverage in Ethiopia. It compared four survey-based methods (interviewee and enumerator estimations alone, as well as those with the use of visual-aid protocols) and two aerial methods (drones’ images and remote sensing) against a line-transect benchmark. Aerial images taken by off-the-shelf drones introduced additional sources of errors and were not as predictive of crop residue coverage as drone deployments in other studies. The research design, which used low-cost and easy-to-implement data collection, did not allow for a consistent altitude, creating modifications in the color of soil components that threw off measurements of crop residues. Given their potential to monitor adoption of agricultural technologies, the researchers hope that in the near future more sophisticated technologies may allow for higher accuracy of image-processing methods.

More comparative research of this kind, across a range of contexts and environments, is advisable for drone technology to become broadly adopted for monitoring and accountability in global development. Ultimately, policymakers will require evidence that these new kinds of data — and new data-generating processes — are as reliable as existing human-led efforts.

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About the author

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    Giovanni Castaldo

    Giovanni Castaldo supports the Center for Effective Global Action's Measurement Initiative. Previously, he collaborated with a university journal of international affairs and interned at Agoravox. He gained research experience as an RA on a variety of projects. Specifically, he worked on tracking world-wide local government sizes and studying the effects of graduation prices in Italian universities.