Saving Refugee Lives with Drones


Thousands of refugees embark on a precarious voyage by sea in a bid to reach Europe through Greece in a bid to seek asylum. However, their journey is adversely affected by worn out boats and testing conditions which even end up in the loss of precious lives. Drones for Refugees is an initiative that focuses on supporting refugees travelling to the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey by keeping an eye along the sea route in the Mediterranean which is trafficked by travelers round the clock.

Mehdi Salehi and Kristen Kersh founded Drones for Refugees. The two gentlemen teach drones classes at Parsons New School for Design. Kersh says that the initiative was inspired by the hundreds of thousands of refugees moving to Europe on rubber boats that capsize on the way more often than not. She adds that the idea struck and made impact in their minds as they were already working with drones and thought that the whole concept of using drones to save lives could be revolutionary. According the figures portrayed at the initiative’s website, 10 casualties are reported of people trying to cross the Mediterranean to make way into Italy, Greece and Turkey since 2014.

The project is still in the process of development and is expected to be kicked off in 2017. At present, the drones operated by Kersh and Salehi send data and video footage to Greek search and rescue teams through an app and website. The monitoring station has been engineered with an aim to ensure autonomy and is a portable unit that harnesses solar energy to power computers, monitors, drone batteries, encoders, receivers and transmitters.

The system also employs wireless internet to transmit information along with solar cells and batteries to charge the entire apparatus. The aim is to keep an eye at the migrants’ voyage and to enhance response time for search and rescue crews so that precious lives can be saved.
Salehi, himself left Afghanistan and sought political asylum later on in Greece, says that the search and rescue teams are provided with GPS coordinates, real time video footage and also the number of men, women and children on the boat so that the first responders are aware of what is waiting for them before they even get there.

Kersh and Salehi are currently based in New York but they undertake frequent trips to Greece to test out their machines.
One of the biggest challenges for the initiative is to ensure that the location of refugees is not retrieved by people with mala fide intent. Kersh explains that they reached out to the refugees and asylum seekers and asked them their point of view when they saw drones approaching them. She adds that they got plenty of valuable information as most of the refugees responded that they had apprehension that they were being attacked by government agencies.

But Salehi believes that the overwhelming goal of the entire initiative is to save lives as in this day and age of technology, people are still trying to cross the Mediterranean in plastic boats and they die on the way. This is all incomprehensible, he says.

Myanmar’s Anguish Exposed by Troubling Drone Aerial Imagery


Migration, violence and oppression are a few terms that aptly define the unfortunate Rohingya refugee crisis but technology has come to the fore to provide new avenues to come in terms with it, said a statement released by rights based groups and charities.More than 800,000 Rohingya refugees migrated to the neighboring Bangladesh from Myanmar and their plight along with their dire needs are being highlighted by the powerful drone and satellite imagery which also serves as an irrefutable evidence of abuses being perpetrated against the ethnic group and can go a long way in lobbying for justice.

Andrej Mahecic, a representative of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says that the agency can vouch for several incidents wherein scores of refugees have been witnessed to be attempting to cross the international border and the existing camps have expanded unimaginably. However, he says, one image describes it all!Myanmar has predominantly Buddhist population but the tensions in the region escalated with the initiation of a counter-insurgency operation against the ethnic group after attacks on security posts by Rohingya militants.

The military operations have resulted in displacement of no less than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims. The magnitude of migration crisis is being underscored by UNHCR with the help of aerial imagery captured with satellites and drones in a bid to encourage action from public, donors and investors.Satellites are also be used to enumerate and identify refugee families by their location in Bangladesh camps to target assistance to those in need, Mahecic said in an email to Thomas Reuters Foundation.

Donations have seen a rise in the aftermath of drone footage of refugees making way into Bangladesh in relation to medical care, food and water, said a statement by Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) which is an alliance of 13 top British charities.Rights groups are also optimistic that aerial imagery captured with drones and satellites will prove to be instrumental in bringing offenders to justice.
Satellite images were used in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to prove mass executions way back in 1995 in Srebrenica.

However, budgetary constraints and absence of standardized approaches acceptable to courts are still considered as massive impediments in the application of technology.Satellite photographs showing the burning of about 300 villages, mobile phone video footages and refugee testimonies have been shared by Human Rights Watch with the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Josh Lyons is a satellite imagery analyst who is working with the US based rights group and says that the group has unearthed the debris field where people were killed; accounts which were confirmed by multiple statements given by eyewitnesses.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the oppression of Rohingya Muslims an undeniable case of ethnic cleansing and his office is burning midnight oil to ascertain if it can be legally termed as an act of genocide.

Improving Refugee Camps with Drones


In the fall of 2016, CartONG and the Swiss Foundation for Demining (FSD) took part in a six day training program and simulation for 13 staff of a key international organization that is engaged in the planning and management of refugee camps. The training assumed that 7,000 refugees had to be accommodated in the shelter camps on immediate basis. The major chunk of the training program was geared towards providing hands on practice to the participants on the Autodesk software.

CartONG and the Swiss Foundation for Demining (FSD), during the simulation, portrayed the use of mapping drones. The purpose was to collect aerial imagery with the help of drones to help plan a refugee camp design on 1.8 square Km of land that had been assumed to be reserved for the refugees. CartONG provided the participants with aerial imagery, a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) and a Digital Surface Model (DSM) of the area. The files were originally generated in Pix4D but were importable to Autodesk software.

It took almost half an hour to cover the entire area. Subsequently, it took another 40 minutes to create the point cloud, orthomosaic and contour lines and then yet another hour to generate the DTM and DSM. A fixed wing, eBee Senselfy drone equipped with optical (RGB) camera was used by CartONG for this purpose.


Professionals were adamant that the availability of high quality video footage could be really handy in planning a new settlement or when planning to improve an already existing camp. The participants took a fancy to the free satellite imagery that was available through the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). However, there was a feeling amongst the participants that the image resolution of 15 to 90MP of the ASTER images was far less than that required by site planners. The participants believed that drone imagery could serve as a viable substitute to this low resolution imagery. CartONG captured aerial images at a resolution of 12 cm per pixel for the sake of simulation which turned out to be sufficient. The eBee Senselfy drone has the ability to attain image resolution of up to 3cm per pixel.Participants also appreciated the noiseless flight undertaken by the eBee in contrast to a quadcopter that was being flown by a camera team near the training site.

During the training sessions, the participants were informed that a single eBee Sensefly cost a whopping $20,000. However, a camp manager who wanted access to satellite imagery on daily basis opined that in contrast to the cost of $500 per satellite image, the costs for the drone could be easily compensated. Another participant informed the gathering that there were certain legal limitations when it came to satellite imagery such as the fact that a buyer could not share the data with all organizations working in the refugee settlement. The drone imagery, in contrast, would be owned by the drone pilot and could be shared as and when required.

Some participants alluded to the stringent regulations in place in majority of the countries with regard to drones and how difficult it was to convince local authorities to fly drones even for humanitarian purposes. Since refugees are mostly displaced by armed conflict instead of natural catastrophes, so the gathering assumed that the local law enforcement agencies would naturally be skeptical of the use of drones in and around refugee camps.

Primary Uses

One of the primary uses of drones would be to gain insight about the topography, slope and elevation of a potential refugee camp site. Here are some of the crucial information products:
• Topographical analysis based on contour lines.
• An analysis of slope and elevation.
This information could come in handy for site planners while ascertaining the amount of land that could be used and hence also predict the number of people that could be accommodated in the settlement. Coupled with the UNOSAT flood data, the site planners could also forecast the risk of floods and also incorporate mitigation measures in the planning stage.
Other uses of the data acquired by drones for site planners include:
• Generation of a map with typical services and facilities which can be beneficial while planning large sites without any maps.
• Accurate planning of drainage, water, sanitation and health facilities and irrigation mechanisms.
• A prediction of how the camps will evolve with time. One of the participants opined that this could help in forecasting if two of the groups in a settlement were moving closer to each other or moving away. Of course, this could only be predicted with the knowledge of the background of the refugees.
• The environmental impact of a refugee settlement could be documented by using aerial imagery prior to the development of the camp and then comparing it with subsequent imagery. Reforestation efforts could also be carried out this way. But satellite imagery was considered sufficient for this purpose.
• One of the participants argued that the monitoring of roads and construction could be carried out from the ground but it could be swifter with the help of drones and also save plenty of time
• The scientific rigor of household surveys could be enhanced by assisting enumerators choose a representative sample of households with the help of drone images.
One of the training participants also shared his personal experience where refugees began to move shelters within the camp as they disagreed with the design of the site or preferred to be closer to a certain group of people. This created complications with regard to monitoring occupancy. In such cases, drones could be beneficial in finding a shelter if it had a number written on its roof.
Challenges faced in simulation


The simulations took place in the vicinity of a Swiss mountain resort where drone pilots had to deal with a certain obstacle which is by no means a common sight in humanitarian response activities: paragliders. About two thirds of the target area was mapped by CartONG a couple of weeks before the simulation with an eBee drone but the large number of paragliders resulted into incomplete flights.
Heavy fog resulted into a visibility of less than 25 meters which led to incomplete flights before the simulation. In terms of cloud cover, drones clearly have an edge over satellites or manned aircrafts but the flights on the foggy day were made impossible owing to a couple of significant reasons:
•Visibility was too low for the drone to see what was coming in its way
• Visibility was too low for the operator to keep the drone in his line of sight which is a mandatory regulation to be followed in Switzerland
However, luckily enough, the weather became pleasant on the day of the simulation which allowed the CartONG crew to complete the flights just at the last minute.

Data Processing

During the creation of DTM, the large number of trees in the region posed additional hurdles. The drones were not loaded with sophisticated LIDAR sensor, so the camera was not able to view through the canopy to the ground. Also, since CartONG were employing a beta version of Pix4D which cannot automatically eliminate trees with better prowess, so the information manager had to remove trees manually from the imagery and fill in the gaps with the help of Pix4D using an approximation of elevation profile.
Technical Specifications:
Type of system: Sensefly eBee.
Deploying Agency: FSD/CartONG.
Piloting Agency: CartONG.

Drones Save Refugee Lives in Mediterranean


10 casualties have been reported since 2014 with people endeavoring to cross the Mediterranean. The Drones for Refugees project has been initiated in this aftermath to ensure that this journey across the sea is as safe as possible.The areas with massive concentration of travelling refugees are captured by drones with their real time video footage broadcast along with the use of infrared sensors to keep a watch even at night. Powered by solar batteries along with a wireless internet connection, there is little to no engagement of humans in drone flight. The personnel at the ground stations keep an eye at the video footage on their monitors or handheld mobile devices and collect information such as the number of passengers on a boat, its positional coordinates, the accuracy of the route and whether there are sufficient life vests.

Rescue crews are alerted in the event of an emergency. An emergency aid package is also carried by high end drones that can be released as and when required. The swift response to any emergency can go a long way in saving precious human lives.The new prototype drone was tested in Lesbos between July and August 2016. A higher end variant was introduced in Sicily in the spring of 2017. The self-funded project is seeking collaboration with investors and donors to procure larger sized drones capable to covering longer distances.

Good Drones, an imaginative and design lab with an aim to employ drones to solve social problems, was originally established by Project director Mehdi Salehi. Drones for Refugees is only one of the projects launched under the umbrella of Good Drones initiative. Salehi was deeply affected by news footage of Syrian refugees travelling across the Mediterranean on dilapidated boats along with his own personal experience.Salehi himself came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2001 as he travelled on a boat along with his friend. Salehi was incarcerated for five months once he reached Greece.

A local lawyer helped him win political asylum and he went onto graduate from the University of Volos and subsequently joined Parson School of Design in New York. He believes himself to be immensely fortunate and credits people who supported him along the way in Greece. He is of the view that refugees and migrants need support and help to get back on their feet.It can be a frustrating and horrifying adventure for refugees to cross the Mediterranean. Drones for Refugees is striving to ensure that refugees get a life line to get away from the violence and hardships in their home countries.

Drones Give a New Life to Refugee Search and Rescue Efforts


The user of drones is being highly advocated to spot refugees crossing the sea by rights based groups.Alou Sango was overwhelmed with fear after being caught helpless in the middle of the Mediterranean. He believes that his journey from Libya seemed to be ending in death as the gasoline in the boat had finished.Sango originated from Mali and so had to get onto an overcrowded boat similar to thousands of others to get away from the crisis hit region. Several days into the voyage, the captain lost his way and in the absence of a GPS position to convey to the Italian rescue crews, the hope of 100 or so passengers was all but over.

A Chinese ship eventually identified the rubber boat which helped the migrants and escorted them to Italy where Sango, recently turned 24, is studying through Sant’Egidio Community, a charity headquartered in Rome.Sango’s voyage across the Mediterranean is an example of the massive challenge that search and rescue teams have to face: not being able to spot the small sized rubber boats floating across the huge sea.As warmer weather approaches, the attempts to cross the Mediterranean also increase, and so the rescuers are looking to get help from once considered sophisticated killing machines – drones – to help save refugees.

Ian Ruggier is heading the operations at the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) which is an independent search and rescue organization. He says that a drone loaded with a camera allows his team to spot where help is required as the real time video footage greatly helps in the decision making process. MOAS launched operations in 2014 and since then have been able to rescue 11,685 people in the central Mediterranean with the help of small unmanned aircraft. The rescued do not really know their rescuer as Ian Ruggier says that the machines fly too high for the refugees and asylum seekers to spot in the sky.

Broadening Vistas

The 250Kg drone takes from the deck of a MOAS ship patrolling the sea water and broadcasts real time video footage to the three member rescue crew which operates its daily flight operations. The camera transmits both conventional and thermal imagery.Ruggier thinks of a couple of instances when a tiny blip appeared in the image well beyond the flight trajectory and on being further investigated, a few struggling dinghies were spotted. He says that in the absence of a drone flying in the horizon, there was a high probability of the boats not being spotted, or spotted too late for them to be rescued.

With the news of 500 people drowning in the Mediterranean because of a capsized boat have brought to the limelight the risks associated with missing out on boats. The 41 survivors told the UN refugee agency that they had floated for three days before being spotted by rescue crews.There have been reports of about 1,261 casualties or people gone missing on their way to Europe this year while UN statistics reveal that about 181,000 successfully crossed the Mediterranean in 2016.

MOAS is planning to keep using drones in the future. Currently, they are using an aircraft engineered by an Austrian company Schiebel which was also deployed in Ukraine to monitor the peace deal. The company’s owner, Hans Georg Schiebel, says that the primary aim of the drone is to expand the end user’s horizons. The spherical shape of the earth makes it complicated to see far at the sea which tends to restrict sight.

Working in sync with agencies

Drones have proved to be extremely beneficial in search and rescue missions but the national authorities are still not eyeing them from that perspective. Drones are not being used by the Italian coastguard which carried out successful search and rescue missions of over 150,000 people.Costs are a major hurdle in this regard as monthly fee for a drone and personnel is $340,000. Rudimentary regulations associated with drones and entering a country’s airspace are among other challenges.

Due to the proximity of territorial waters on the path between Greece and Turkey which is an important Mediterranean route, operation of drones has been difficult to implement.Roushan Zenooz is a volunteer who travelled from USA to Greece. He says that he made efforts for a drone to be deputed off the island of Lesbos. The Greek coastguard rejected the idea due to an agreement with the neighboring Turkey that prevented the use of drones in the area.
Zenooz had contacted Danoffice IT, the Danish sister company of SkyWatch, which is a drone development company. Danoffice IT had agreed to conduct a feasibility study in a couple of weeks. Jacob Petersen is serving as the global sales manager at Danoffice and says that his company’s 2Kg drones have a range of 30Km and cost about a third of Schiebel’s model.

He says that the company decided not to fly its drones in the forbidden region amidst all the political uncertainty and adhere to the laws of the land. Petersen is of the view that there is an urgent need to alter the existing laws and civial aviation authorities should reach on a consensus with regard to drones. At the same time, he says, rights based groups should develop standards similar to those that regulate vehicles in emergencies.There are remarkable instances of success in other cases of emergency response such as earthquakes where drones have played a vital role. UAViators is a network of drone pilots and operators in humanitarian and development organizations and was founded by Patrick Meier. He says that his organization was recently contacted in Ecuador in the aftermath of the earthquake.

He says that it was not such a common sight a couple of years back to have government agencies requesting support from UAVs after natural catastrophes. Also, it was quite rare to be able to find drone operators in the country but Meier was able to search out a couple of pilots from the UAViators network.He says that his organization is increasingly working towards taking support from the local partners in a bid to quicken up the emergency response and avoid all the issues that can serve as impediments when endeavoring to import drones into a certain country.

Jessie Mooberry, a humanitarian drone consultant, says that drones turned out to be extremely helpful after the terrible earthquake in Nepal. Mooberry has also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to drop aid packages from drones in Syria.He says that he along with his colleagues contacted the air force and the aviation authority in Nepal after the earthquake but when it came to Syria, there was no one group that could be contacted which led to the failed use of drones in the region.Mooberry suggests that there is a need to set up a global coordinating framework with the direct involvement of humanitarian organizations who should keep the drone users coordinated, provide them with the latest information and regulate airspace. She says that this is the only way forward to exploit this magnificent technology in humanitarian response.She believes that this has to be done at all costs as these drones are just too handy to let them go!

Drone Technology and UN – Future Prospects

Avionics specialists with the 12th Aircraft Maintenance Unit prepare a Global Hawk for a runway taxi test at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The Global Hawk is scheduled to begin flying at Beale in early November. The program is a total force effort with the Air Force Reserve’s 13th Reconnaissance Squadron assisting active duty personnel. (U.S. Air Force photo/Stacey Knott)


Drone technology seems to have struck the right chord with the United Nations as small unmanned aircraft systems have been used extensively for various purposes including humanitarian,development and peacekeeping missions.Despite not being a miraculous antidote to all that ills this planet Earth, Christopher Fabian, principal advisor on innovation at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), believes that the drone technology bodes magnificently well for the UnitedNations.
He is of the view that drone technology can bring about a massive change in three ways when it comes to UNICEF and other humanitarian and development agencies.Firstly, drones are able to access areas which may seem to be inaccessible by conventional means of transportation or where roads do not exist, while carrying light weight supplies.

Secondly, drones can be employed for remote sensing such as gathering imagery and data in the aftermath of natural catastrophes such as mudslides, to locate the hardest hit areas and where people have suffered the most.

Thirdly, drones can also be used to amplify WiFi connectivity, from the sky to the ground, furnishing refugee camps or schools with access to the internet.Drones are of different sizes ranging from a giant Boeing 737 passenger jet to a tiny hummingbird sized aircraft. The data collected by the research firm Gartner reveals that the total drone sales have risen up to 2.2 million the world over in 2016 and revenue ratcheted up to a whopping $4.5 billion.

According to Mr. Fabian, UNICEF, despite using drones at a limited level, is planning to ramp up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in its operations.Malawi has collaborated with UNICEF to launch first air corridor in Africa to test the humanitarian use of drones in Kansungu District.Similarly, Vanuatu has also been partnering UNICEF to test the capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of drones to deliver life-saving vaccines to far flung areas in the tiny Pacific island country.

Separated over 1,600Km, Vanuatu is an archipelago consisting of 82 islands. Some of these can be accessed by boat and mobile vaccination teams can make their way on foot to the target communities with vaccinations. This is a seemingly difficult task considering the climate and topography.A working group comprising the UNICEF and World Food Programmes (WFP) has been created to expand the use of drones. UNICEF heads the UN Innovation Network along with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which is an informal forum that convenes meetings on quarterly basis to share lessons learned and initiate innovative ideas across agencies.

Other agencies of the UN are also using drones. A new drone has recently been introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its partners to create a visual mapping of gamma radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant which was damaged by the catastrophic Tsunami of 2011.
Just the previous year, a drone supported by IAEA won the fourth prize in the 2016 United Arab Emirates Drones for Good contest which included more than 1,000 competitors from across the globe.
Remotely Operated Mosquito Emission Operation (ROMEO) won the first prize in the contest as it was able to portray alignment with the objective of uplifting human lives. It was engineered to transport and release sterile male mosquitos as part of an insect pest birth control technique that inhibits the growth of pest population.
Drones have also be used by some of the UN peacekeeping missions stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Central African Republic for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes and to provide enhanced security to the citizenry.

Here is an in image in which spectators watch vehemently a quadcopter operated by the Chief Air Traffic Controller Steve Mkandawire, a certified civil aviation pilot. The spectators are residents of Thipa village, Kasungu District, Malawi.
This is another image of ROMEO, which is a drone tailor made to whiz through the sky to help stifle growth of undesired pest population.

Mr. Herve Ladsous, former head of UN Peacekeeping, is provided detailed insight into the deployment of drones in Congo.
Here is a demonstration of a drone in the UN office at Geneva. The machine is employed by the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) for mapping and zoomed in visual analysis.
Drone technology, along with having its benefits, can also come with a certain drawbacks. There has been consensus amongst UN human rights experts about the fatal use of drones.

Mr. Fabrian argues that the device itself is no danger to human lives but it is the operator controlling it. He emphasizes that the technology that is being introduced or worked on should be strictly regulated by the human rights framework such as the Conventional on the Rights of the Child.The set of guiding principles forged by UNICEF for innovation also includes segments such as designing with the end user.Mr. Fabian believes that UN has a massive role to play in advocating the drone technology and making sure that appropriate policies are framed by local governments to mainstream drones.
Moreover, he stresses that the government need to strictly underscore the purpose of drones along with conjuring up the necessary national framework to support their use.
He further says that the private sector can be instrumental in this regard as the drone technology can offer substantial commercial opportunities.

Mr. Fabian foresees a future wherein drones will be as common as the stationery we use today.He is of the view that in the beginning, this amazing technology may come across a few years of regulatory inhibition but a day will come when drones will be as common a sight as cell phones.