I recently had the honour of attending the MSF Canada AGM in Montreal to join Ivan Gayton and Stephen Mather (from Open DroneMap fame) run a drone day for the MSF logisticians. The aim being to show the realm of the possible with current drone technology as well as touch on future trends and ethical considerations.
A second agenda we had was to promote the democratisation of drone technology to enable crowd sourced imagery collection as part of the Missing Maps initiative. More specifically, the goal is to bring drone technology down to a level where it can be built, maintained, and operated safely, responsibly, and independently by a local high school in South Sudan, the local University of Lubumbashi, or similar.
Ivan and myself have been musing about this for pretty much a year now and we are starting to make some headway. As a first milestone we are looking to pull together a proposal to the Humanitarian Innovation Fund in collaboration with Open Drone Map and supported by the Missing Maps consortium.
Everybody brought some toys and the whole point of the day was to get the MSF attendees as much hands on experience as possible. I brought a Hubsan, some Cherion’s, and a Silent Runner airship (thanks Andreas and Thomas!). Stephen brought one of his mapping kites and Ivan brought his ghetto quad and a complete Iris+ system.
After a quick intro on control principles and algorithms general indoor and outdoor flying mayhem ensued. Everybody got to fly and there was lots of time to answer questions and debate merits and caveats.
Mapping and Open Drone Map
Stephen then guided the audience through a mapping workflow which we then set to illustrate by collecting some images of the road nearby and processing them into an orthophoto and point cloud. Stephen did this with Agisoft and ODM while I pushed it through Pix4D thanks to the temporary license Pix4D kindly provided us. Some results are shown below and went down very well as it suddenly made everything very concrete.
As an aside I have to say I have been impressed with Open Drone Map’s progress thus far. See below some results on the Tandale mapping we did with Drone Adventures a few months ago. While not as polished as Agisoft, the rendering issues are actively being worked on and will improve. Watch this space.
Tandale data processed with Agisoft:
Tandale data processed with ODM:
But I digress. The MSF drone day ended with a general discussion on ethics of drone use. This was joined by the medics (who had their own breakout day and were somewhat peeved to hear about all the fun they had missed) and introduced by Ivan who set the scene by explaining the trolley problem. This then triggered a really interesting discussion touching on many of the delicate and challenging ethical dilemmas MSF faces on the ground. The drone angle was particularly relevant given the ongoing controversy regarding the use of a Schiebel Camcopter on board an (indirectly) MSF supported migrant rescue ship. Something the majority were rightfully not happy with.
The Camcopter case aside, the general consensus at the end was that yes, drones are useful and should not be banned outright but that one should should always take great care in where and when to deploy them. In many of the areas where MSF operate drones are used for military and surveillance purposes. While the general press may often cover their use as humanitarian, anybody familiar with the Humanitarian Principles will know this is not so. Their use by the UN to search for rebels being the case in point.
Overall it was an intense but rewarding day with very good feedback. I stayed on for the rest of the AGM and felt honoured to be able see this organisation from the inside. It was fascinating and humbling to listen to the different speakers as they discussed their experiences in the Ebola response, the role of MSF in the wider humanitarian community, the ways the organisation can and should improve, etc.
I returned back home with a real sense of respect for what first responders like MSF do. In particular MSF may be a 5 headed dragon, and the organisation obviously has its pains, but the spirit and dedication with which its staff face ethical dilemmas head on and literally risk their lives to save others is humbling.