The Frontier Technology Livestreaming programme has a portfolio of six ‘UAV’ (unmanned aerial vehicle) or drone pilot projects, all exploring different humanitarian or development use cases for this frontier technology.
It’s a diverse cluster; deploying UAVs for transporting tuberculosis sputum samples from clinics to labs for diagnosis in Mozambique, providing internet connectivity and precision drops post-disaster in the Caribbean, and gathering imagery for road condition monitoring in Tanzania.
However, one thing all of these pilots have in common, is that they all have involved (or will involve) deploying a UAV for testing in Africa, South Asia or the Caribbean; all environments that present novel and complex challenges; and all environments where we hope to mainstream the use of this technology in the future.
We asked Nigel Breyley, the Frontier Tech Hub’s technical expert on UAVs, to crystallise both this experience working on the programme and wider knowledge to help UAV technologists and innovators deploying into challenging environments.
How do you begin to think about moving from testing in a controlled, for-purpose environment to a rugged, uncertain one?
Every use case will have its own unique set of characteristics and considerations, but below we’ve outlined some of the things to think about as a starting point. If you’ve got anything to add or any comments, based on your experiences, please let us know in the comments below.
1. Check what you are letting yourself in for
If you can, visit the operating location ahead of your deployment to get a feel for the facilities that exist and to make the personal connections with people on the ground. Face to face always beats the telephone and never rely on texting there aren’t enough emojis to cover the issues you’ll face.
Take the chance to visit and book hotels, arrange hire vehicles etc. and a tip you’ll see later — find a local Mr Fixit.
2. Practice in as realistic an environment as you can
You may not be able to replicate the climate you are deploying to, but practise operating away from your main base. Go to a field in the middle of nowhere and try to fly. Can you launch a fixed-wing conventional drone from a rough strip with divots and an uneven surface? Do you know how to assemble and reassemble all your data links effectively — are the cables long enough: simple things which sadly many forget to think about in the rush and excitement. Learn these lessons before you deploy.
3. Freight logistics: is everything set for international travel?
While you should factor in delays into your timetabling to make sure you have as much time as possible on site, there are things you can do to minimise these. Make sure you know the rules about Dangerous Air Cargo and transporting Li-Po batteries, they aren’t the same with all airlines. Import and export paperwork must be in place for each individual item, and the items should try to stick closely to any approved/non-approved lists to avoid delays.
We’d recommend taking 2 or 3 of spare parts for each of your components/equipment items; the potential logistical hassles mean it is worth making sure you have sufficient spare equipment in the field. You’ll have mishaps, so make sure you’re prepared — have the necessary equipment and have a plan for handling the mishaps.
If you’ve been liaising primarily with an Aviation Authority, ensure that they notify the customs department and any other necessary government agencies (don’t just assume that these connections will be made). The assistance of these other government agencies can be critical to your success. Remember you are a foreign company entering the country probably for the first time, these agencies know each other and are more familiar with the rules. Don’t be proud — ask for help.
4. Local logistics: are you prepared when you arrive?
How will you get the UAV from airport to the field? Where can you buy fuel? Who knows the nicest places to eat. Make sure you have a local fixer — the Mr Fixit who can arrange the practicalities on the ground. In addition to knowing the local area and who to talk to, this can mean everything from arranging local security, to knowing how the weather might play out the next day… or knowing a man/woman who will know. Are you thinking of paying freight charges for a generator when Mr Fixit can provide one cheaper … but don’t forget to check the voltage. How many other items might this type of issue apply to?
As well as Mr Fixit, we’d recommend engaging with as many people as you can who have suitable experience of using UAVs locally. We’ve found networks of incredibly passionate and talented drone enthusiasts in most every country we’ve worked in. They can be a hive of information on the realities of UAV deployment and operation in that country. These are likely to be the people who can tell you who to speak with about radio frequency licensing, about data protection rules or why the terrain model you are using isn’t the right one.
5. Stakeholder engagement: what’s your map and what’s your strategy?
In parallel with planning the UAV deployment logistics is another equally important one you need to conduct: building up credibility and engaging with the key stakeholders. This isn’t just the government agencies we mentioned earlier. Proactively engage with anyone involved in or affected by the flight. It might be clinic staff for a healthcare delivery, local communities in the take-off and landing area or anyone who might be thinking of taking up the technology (e.g. a donor or NGO).
Seek advocates who can vouch for you and help you build your credibility. Adapt your message to the different audiences. Think through what the message needs to be and what evidence needs to be demonstrated. Whether they are local, national or international stakeholders, engage them early and proactively: get them interested in the results you will generate and the benefits you can bring.
6. Personnel: who’s going to be deployed and is it everyone you need?
Things will go wrong, and when they do it is crucial that your team has the expertise and capability to work ‘on the fly’. Do your personnel have experience working in a challenging environment? Do you need engineers (i.e. people who can diagnose as well as repair technical faults) as opposed to just operators? Are you taking staff who have engaged with the key stakeholders previously and made those vital personal connections?
7. Enjoy the experience
Focus on what’s important and don’t sweat the small stuff. You are going to have an extraordinary experience and you’re going to learn some life lessons too.