The Amazon Rainforest Could Become the Silicon Valley for Drone Startups

Drone entourage in Pucallpa, Peru

Two years ago, Pedro’s family struggled day to day in their tiny pueblo, not unlike the thousands of other isolated communities deep in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. They had no running water or electricity and got their news from a battery powered radio. Today, eleven-year-old Pedro, along with every other school-aged child in the Peruvian Amazon owns a modern Android tablet powered by the sun.

Pedro uses his tablet mostly for studying and playing games. But his favorite pastime is to use its built-in camera for taking pictures of the ultra high tech drones that quietly fly over his village. In Pedro’s eyes, they look like a child’s dream toy: remote controlled, lightweight, and fast. As they glide peacefully above, their modern silhouette is in stark and surreal contrast to the scene below. Reminiscent of 150 years ago, meandering rows of dilapidated huts and their glimmering tin roofs are juxtaposed between the densely forested jungle and sleepy river.

Up until now, Pedro had no Internet access in his village. There were also no roads leading to it. Once a week, Pedro followed his father down the Ucayali River in his fishing boat to the town of Pucallpa about two hours away. There, at an Internet cafe with wifi, Pedro patiently downloaded into his tablet math and English learning videos and class notes from Khan Academy and edutainment games for offline playing from other online sources. Before leaving, he also checked his email to see if his mother had sold any more of her necklaces on eBay and other online marketplaces. She made the intricate hand woven necklaces herself using a traditional weaving technique shown to her by her grandmother and by sourcing straw and colorful seeds from the jungle. Customers in North America and Europe loved their uniqueness and paid up to US$50 for each creation. Since Pedro’s mother was illiterate, Pedro was in charge of listing the necklaces and collecting the orders.

But soon, the day that Pedro and everyone else in his village have been eagerly awaiting for will arrive. The construction of a cell phone tower just outside the village is nearing completion, enabling a cluster of 22 villages to receive cellular coverage. In addition, a solar powered mesh network will connect the tower to these villages, enabling every child to fully utilize her wifi enabled tablet and her entire household to receive Internet access as well. Residents of the 22 villages will be able to send messages to one another via the mesh network and read important community-wide bulletins and emergency notices, as well as make individual forum posts and transact business with one another. The highly resilient solar-powered mesh network is expected to be available 24 hours a day, with minimal downtime. While the cellular phone company plans to charge for its voice and data services, access to the mesh network will remain free of charge, thanks to an agreement reached with the local government authorities.

With reliable cellular coverage and Internet access, village life will transform in a remarkable way. Pedro’s older sister has a rare blood disorder which requires that her blood be tested on a monthly basis. Soon, she will no longer have to make the tedious boat trip to Pucallpa to have the bloodwork done. Instead, she can have her blood drawn at the village clinic. The nurse will be able to place an order online with a transport drone company. A medical transport drone will pick up the blood sample and deliver it directly to the nearest testing lab in Pucallpa. Remarkably, the non-polluting battery powered flight will take only 10 minutes compared to the usual 2 hour journey by boat.

Pedro’s father Pablo has always been regarded by the other villages as a humble, soft-spoken fisherman. He spoke Spanish as well as Shipibo, the native tongue of his tribe. Because of his gentle and unassuming way, the other villagers really listen when he has something to say. They have concluded that since Pablo doesn’t say a whole lot normally, if he gets up in front of an audience to make an announcement, it must be important and potentially life changing.

When Pablo first heard on the radio about the arrival of the drones, he was intensely skeptical. This was surely yet another example of foreign invasion of his beloved Pachamama. The gringos were here to exploit even more natural resources in collusion with the greedy hands of government officials entrenched in the till. But after he listened to a broadcast featuring an in-depth interview with the regional leader of the Indigenous Amazonian Tribes Coalition (IATC) about the drone initiative and how it would bring prosperity and empowerment to his village, such as installation of the cell phone tower and mesh network, as well as to the thousands of other isolated villages in the Peruvian Amazon, he was hooked. Pablo has since been appointed as the IATC’s local spokesperson to gather support from his village for the drones.

This time, Pablo patiently explains to this fellow villagers, things will turn out differently for the Indians. It turns out that some smart scientists from North America have convinced the Peruvian government that their greatest asset is the Amazon rainforest. Through the mysterious sounding “Global Emissions Reductions Carbon Accounting and Trading Market,” Peru could generate a tremendous amount of revenue by leaving the Amazon rainforest alone — pristine, untouched, and protected.

Foreign governments and companies around the world who are polluting the environment by emitting carbon dioxide beyond an acceptable limit are willing to pay Peru for offsetting their pollution by preserving its own rainforests. What Pablo does not fully grasp is how staggeringly large the potential value of these payments is: anywhere from $226 billion to $1.38 trillion a year from the sale of carbon credits, dwarfing the $6 billion in annual tax revenue that Peru collects from mining and fossil fuel extraction. In fact, the lower figure of $226 billion even exeeds Peru’s 2016 GDP forecast of $200 billion. Ironically, environmental protection is now worth several orders of magnitude more to Peru than the extractive industries, which have sacrificed the environment in the name of corporate profits by endangering wildlife, the water supply, and human health in the region. Pablo is thrilled as he believes this discovery will finally level the playing field between indigenous groups and the mining interests they bitterly clash against.

Since the rainforest region comprises a huge area, the drones play a crucial role in monitoring the vast territory of virgin forests to ensure they remain in their natural state, something for which foreign governments and carbon-emitting corporations are together willing to pay Peru billions of dollars. But people on the ground who live in these rural areas and who can be trusted to care for the rainforest are urgently needed as well. They will need to receive specialized training about how to protect the rainforest, including the use of state-of-the-art communication, unmanned aerial vehicle, mapping and surveying, environmental sensing, internet-of-things, and renewable energy technologies. And the government is willing, without hesitation, to invest in all of these. Accordingly, under a bold new chapter in Peru’s history, the indigenous people who live there now have a vital, unprecedented role to play: environmental stewards of their native land, for which they are to be paid handsomely to protect.

Pedro wants to be a drone pilot when he grows up and Pablo fully supports his son’s dream. Pedro grew up in the forest and respecting its delicate ecosystem runs through his veins. No one would be more loyal, faithful, and committed than Pedro in serving as an environmental steward, not just for his village or Peru, but for the world and future generations. Unlike his own difficult past, Pablo knows that Pedro’s future is bright and unlimited.

In case you haven’t suspected already, all of the above is fictional. I made it up. Please don’t be angry. I did this to help you, the reader, visualize what could be. It is realistically doable today. It makes economic, environmental, technological, and human sense. By writing in a style which I hereby coin “evocative realism” for lack of a better term, I also want to provoke change makers to lead the way in producing real and rapid change. What I envision is achievable with today’s technology, not just in the Amazon, but perhaps in other similar regions in the world which are densely forested and resource-rich, presently exploited for mineral and fossil fuel wealth by multinationals, but where countless indigenous communities live and barely get by, isolated, forgotten, and at the bottom of the pyramid in household income.

A Trillion Dollar Industry in Preserving the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest

In 2014, a group of Stanford University scientists led by Greg Asner from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory presented a comprehensive report containing first-ever, high-resolution carbon maps of Peru to the Peruvian government. The data contained in these maps not only revealed the location and size of forests within Peru which soak up and store carbon, but the high-precision scanning tools used by Asner’s team also captured close-up details about the height of individual trees and the chemical activity of their leaves. This treasure trove of carbon data allows the Peruvian government for the first time ever to place an actual value of Peru’s carbon stockpile in the international carbon trading marketplace for remediating global climate change and convert that valuable carbon into dollars.

The carbon report produced by Asner’s team estimates that Peru has 6.92 billion metric tons of carbon locked up in its forests and vegetation. Of this amount, 79% is stored in the Amazonian regions of Loreto, Ucayali, and Madre de Dios. Asner hopes that, in producing this report, the Peruvian government will choose conservation over deforestation. The Peruvian Amazon is among the most biodiverse on earth, with countless species of plants, trees, animals, and birds forming a delicate forest ecosystem. Preserving the forests can not only play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions for all of us sharing this planet, but will ensure the survival of the millions of wildlife living here. Many developing countries with vast regions of tropical forests which frequently sit atop rich mineral and fossil fuel deposits face a similar dilemma as Peru: Faced with high poverty and unemployment, should they choose conservation or deforestation, when the latter would enable them to reap billions of dollars in foreign currency from exploiting their land’s mineral and fossil fuel assets? Invariable, the answer has been deforestation, and Peru has been no exception. Peru’s economy has emerged as a top performer in Latin America and revenue from the extractive industries has been a major driver of that economic miracle.

However, Asner’s carbon map changes all of that. Conservation no longer needs to mean sacrificing a nation’s revenue nor the economic wellbeing of its people. For Peru, with its 6.92 billion metric tons of carbon, and using the US government’s figure of $36 per ton (or $32.66 per metric ton) as the social cost of carbon, that translates to a value of $226 billion in carbon credits that could be sold — greater than Peru’s 2016 estimated GDP of $200 billion. The price of $36 per ton may be far too low. In 2015, a study was published in Nature by Stanford University scientists Frances Moore and Delavane Diaz valuing carbon at the much higher price of $220 a ton. They arrived at this much higher number by calculating the adverse impact of climate change on GDP growth over time, which disproportionately affects poor countries, and including that cost in the $220 a ton figure. In contrast, the much lower US government’s social cost of carbon of $36 a ton assumes that global warming will not have significant long term effects on economic development.

If the higher $220 per ton (or $199.58 per metric ton) figure is used, that means Peru has total carbon assets worth a whopping $1.38 trillion, with more than a trillion dollars of those assets to be found within its Amazon rainforest regions.

Right now, Peru is the country with the most detailed and accurate carbon maps in the world. It is therefore better positioned than any other country to utilize its carbon assets for remediating global climate change and its attendant risks. In doing so, it can not only literally help save the planet, it can also convert much of its pristine and untouched forests into as much as a trillion dollars by exchanging the carbon offsets they represent for dollars, and not by cutting down trees, but by leaving them untouched.

An Ideal Setting for Drone Testing and Pilot Projects

In order to establish itself as premier global provider of carbon assets, Peru must have a highly reputable, reliable, and data driven program in place for surveying, monitoring, and protecting the vast terrain where these assets are located. The 300,000 square miles of the Peruvian Amazon consists of vast wooded areas and dense jungle regions with few runways, roads, or flat land where a traditional airplane could safely land. This is where unmanned aerial vehicles armed with the latest technological advances will play a crucial role. If you want to find out what drones can accomplish in a remote and inaccessible region, sparsely populated with few tall buildings, facilitated by a minimum of regulations, bureaucratic obstacles, and local governmental delays, this is the best place to do it.

Drones can fly over a vast region such as the Peruvian Amazon efficiently and at low cost. If they malfunction or crash, there is no risk of loss of life or injury to human pilots as they are designed to be piloted remotely via a human on the ground or fly on autopilot. In the Peruvian Amazon where there are lots of sunny days, there is huge potential for the testing and use of solar powered or solar assisted drones. Modern drones are also well suited for working within the confines and topography of the Amazon. They have minimal landing requirements and some can land vertically on any flat surface while others can descend onto cleared areas such as a soccer field or grassy park. Should a lightweight drone miss a cleared area and dive into the trees, it can usually be recovered and repaired relatively easily and affordably.

With today’s technology, potential European or Chinese buyers of Peruvian carbon credits could view their potential purchase by looking at live video feeds taken by a drone of the rainforest below. They could zoom in to check on the size and health of the individual trees. They could compare one section of rainforest with another and pinpoint the exact section they would like to protect by buying the corresponding carbon credit for that section.

Since the age and condition of the trees change over time, the drones would have to fly over the same territory on a regular basis to produce up-to-date imagery revealing the current state of each section of rainforest. Drones equipped with near-infrared cameras could be used to identify which trees are healthy, dead, or sick. The image could be zoomed up so that tree trunks, branches, and leaves may be inspected by scientists within a range of just two centimeters. If some areas contain trees which appear unhealthy, a drone could be deployed to drop off sensors in those areas to detect changes in the environment. Once the cause of the problem is identified, macrodrones with application release control systems could be used to spray environmentally friendly insecticides, fungicides, and fertilizers on affected trees.

Besides monitoring the health of the forest, the vigilance of drones would also be needed to detect signs of illegal mining or logging activity and at the earliest possible stage, the beginning of a forest fire which might cause catastrophic damage. Furthermore, all of the valuable imagery and data gathered by the drones over this vast terrain of immense biodiversity should be shared with scientists in other fields such as biology, ecology, forestry, wildlife conservation, environmental science, and geography, thus ushering in a new wave of university-led field studies, government and nonprofit funded research and development projects, corporate pilot initiatives, and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Perhaps other Stanford scientists like Asner and his colleagues will take notice and jump on the bandwagon. Stanford University and Silicon Valley are in the same time zone as Peru, making Skype conferences and the e-collaboration of documents relatively painless. Asner’s carbon maps have created this historic opportunity for Peru. Hopefully other members of the Stanford community and the deeply entrenched high-tech talent in Silicon Valley who would like to co-invent Peru’s sustainable future could contribute their skills and efforts to make this happen today rather than 20 years later. But Peru doesn’t just need Silicon Valley. It also needs support from Chinese drone manufacturers and talented change makers from around the world who believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the future of humanity.

As flexible, multi-purpose, and easily deployable as drones are, they are not without drawbacks. They do not have a long track record yet and many invariably malfunction and crash. A huge cottage industry would likely spring up, specializing in the repairs and emergency or temporary rentals of drones. Frequently, a makeshift solution might be needed on the fly for an unexpected or unique situation. Machine shops and technical consultancies that provide these customized services would flourish.

As more drones appear whizzing overhead going about their delegated tasks in forest conservation, it soon becomes increasingly obvious how they could serve other equally important functions as well for the thousands of isolated communities. Some of the most useful applications for drones, such as cargo delivery and humanitarian aid, have already attracted the serious interest of Peruvian government officials. The remoteness and lack of adequate health care facilities in these communities frequently make drone deployment the fastest and most resource-efficient solution.

In December 2016, the nonprofit WeRobotics completed the first ever cargo drone deliveries in the Amazon rainforest. The aim of WeRobotics is to scale up the impact of social good projects through the use of robotics solutions. Working in the Peruvian Amazon, they successfully repurposed an old mapping drone to deliver anti-venom medicine to Pampa Hermosa, a remote village about 40 km away from the nearest health hub of Contamana. The drone also flew back at night for the return journey carrying human blood samples. Originally, a $40,000 drone was supposed to carry out these test flights but it failed to fly. With some last minute ingenuity and creative problem solving of the local WeRobotics team from Peru Flying Labs, an old mapping drone weighing only 2 kg was used instead. They removed the drone’s camera and replaced it with ant-venom and blood samples. Even though it was held together with duct tape and rubber bands, the old beaten up drone which cost $2799 brand new still performed better than the $40,000 drone. This inexpensive repurposed drone successfully completed a journey which normally takes up to 6 hours by canoe in only 35 minutes. Based on these initial promising results, WeRobotics has been invited by public health officials to carry out additional drone test flights over a longer distance (over 100 km).

In February 2017, I was invited by Juan Bergelund of Peru Flying Labs to personally witness some WeRobotics test flights in Pucallpa and Contamana that were conducted at the request of the Peruvian Health Ministry. Watching these elegant, lightweight drones in action was really fascinating and although they looked quite surreal against the sleepy backdrop, their extraordinary potential for solving everyday problems, saving lives, and transforming the economics of the Amazonia became firmly cemented in my mind. I also had the chance to speak to the team about the meaningful groundbreaking work they are doing. Perhaps the highlight of my brief trip was the intense curiosity of the children and their excited screams upon catching their first glimpse of a drone in flight. We need to remember to look at the world through the eyes of a child again, so that we can see possibilities without being constrained by mind numbing doubt or conditioned passivity.

Opportune Timing for Drone Startups to Take Off

Last month, powerful huaicos struck Peru again, with heavy rains, floods, and mudslides affecting half of the nation. This time, they were the worst in almost 30 years, causing more than 90 fatalities and more than 120,000 people left homeless. Damage has been reported in 24 of Peru’s 25 regions, with the worst affected areas being the capitol city of Lima with 8.5 million residents, Piura, Lambayeque, Ica, Arequipa, Huancavelica, Ancash, and the Amazonian region of Loreto. About 150,000 homes and businesses and more than 1610 km (1000 miles) of roads have been destroyed. Some towns have suffered devastating damage and are unrecognizable. It will take at least 2 to 3 years to repair and rebuild Peru in the aftermath of the catastrophe at an estimated total cost of $3.1 billion, or 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP.

Children trapped by the floodwaters had to be rescued by the military. People, animals, and debris were swept along the swiftly moving current caused by rising waters as rivers overflowed their banks. Hundreds of people had to be rescued from rooftops. The intense flooding reached as high as 2 meters (6.6 feet) in some towns, making approach by car or foot impossible and hindering rescue efforts. Drones have already been deployed in the disaster areas to capture aerial footage of the damage and aid in recovery and relief efforts. Dealing with this catastrophe will be a massive undertaking and I believe that as the timely humanitarian use of drones gain traction, their effectiveness in quickly reaching disaster zones inaccessible by land will be under increasing media coverage and public awareness in the coming weeks and months.

On March 25, 2017, President Kuczynski of Peru called on Peruvians to turn off their lights in observance of WWF’s Earth Hour. He wanted them to realize that the rains that had left thousands of victims in their country were the “fruit of the damage that we do to the planet.” He urged Peruvians to join this event, saying “That’s why we have Earth Hour, so that global warming, which has brought us bad weather and mudslides, will not continue. That will not happen in a calmer world.” In an earlier interview on March 20 with CNN, the President shared a similar perspective, stating that the floods were a result of global warming and climate change.

How will all this ignite the growth of the drone industry in the Peruvian Amazon? Peru has a head of state who is both a trained economist and proponent for reducing climate change. President Kuczynski, a Princeton graduate and former World Bank economist and equity fund manager, is now at a crucial crossroads in his presidency. Rebuilding Peru after the recent catastrophe is expected to take several years and cost $3.1 billion dollars or 1.6 percent of Peru’s GDP. Should he follow the route of his predecessors and continue to rely on the mining and fossil fuel industries, a major source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, as major revenue sources for fueling his country’s future growth? Or should he take advantage of the recent weather catastrophe and its link to global warming and lead his country on a different, cleaner path to prosperity by means of unlocking the carbon assets in the Peruvian Amazon, placing a competitive value on them with the help of Greg Asner’s detailed carbon map, and selling them as carbon offset credits in the international carbon market?

Since Peru’s rainforests could be worth more than $1 trillion in the form of tradeable carbon credits, I believe that President and his government will take a serious look at Asner’s carbon map, crunch a bunch of numbers, and if the math makes sense, it won’t be too long before fleets of drones are dispatched into the Peruvian Amazon. There, they can take close-up images of those carbon-storing trees and capture section-by-section aerial footage, with borders delineated by latitude and longitude, of the most productive rainforest regions for conservation so that a detailed inventory of tradeable assets can be provided to potential government and corporate buyers.

But please take note, whether you care about climate change or not, the Peruvian Amazon is still an ideal place for drone testing and development. While I believe the impetus for an explosion of drone activity will come from converting rainforest carbon to dollars, it will open up many areas of new demand for drone related services. Drone startups can flourish here. There is a favorable regulatory attitude toward drones with minimal red tape, and businesses based in the Amazon region enjoy a low tax rate of 5%. The warm, tropical climate and sparsely populated areas with low building density produce safe and favorable flying conditions. Drone startups will love the broad range of testing conditions available due to topography and geography, from the eastern Andean foothills (Selva Alta) to the lowland jungle in the Amazon basin (Selva Baja), and from savannas and grassland meadows to swamp forests and dense jungles.

By far, the most delightful aspect of operating a flying business here is interacting with the welcoming natives. Curious and smart, they are respectful of nature and possess an exceptional survival instinct. They are great trekking guides and have a deep familiarity with the lay of the land. They also have an encyclopedic arsenal of practical and timeless wisdom to share, some of which may save your life, heal your sickness, or get you out of a dangerous situation one day.

Out of Isolation and Poverty and Into Rainforest Carbon Stewardship

So come here early and place your stake on the ground, get your feet wet, go fly some drones, and meet people like Pablo and Pedro who can help champion your project and turn it from a pipe dream to mission accomplished. In the process, you will have the adventure of a lifetime. But remember, they too have dreams. They want to participate in society as equals with you and the opportunity to thrive and excel without limits, to be rewarded handsomely just like you will be. There is an eye-popping amount of money to be made. And these indigenous communities have a vital role to play as environmental stewards in safeguarding the wealth of their land. Not to compensate them well would be obscene and inequitable. It is completely fair and just that they be given the necessary tools and preconditions for success, like a good education, career training, health care, and a decent internet connection.

Finally, they definitely deserve a defined and achievable pathway out of poverty and into prosperity, whether it be as an environmental steward, drone pilot, activist, forest medic, wildlife researcher, jungle entrepreneur, or in an exciting future role yet to be created, evolved via a coming together of ideas and nature, where surrounded by the random chaos and life forming magic of the rainforest, anything is truly possible.

Yep, in the Amazon rainforest, a Silicon Valley for drone startups is about to blossom. All the conditions are ripe. The timing is right. Pablo and Pedro are ready to help. There is an extraordinary amount of money to be made. And a priceless amount of social good that can emerge from that money. What are you waiting for?

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