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UNHCR Drones Help Displaced Populations in Africa
For many people drones conjure up images of remotely piloted aircraft bristling with missiles, used for military ends. But in conflict-affected parts of Africa, versions of the technology are being used by humanitarian aid organizations like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to plan relief responses and save lives.
Drones are increasingly in use in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso and Uganda to help map huge populations of displaced people, assess their needs and figure out how best to get assistance to them. They are also being used to evaluate environmental damage caused by displacement.
“There are numerous peaceful applications of this technology, whether in human rights, aid delivery, or settlement mapping,” says Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Innovation unit, noting that the potential use for drones is “overwhelming.”
The technology has come into its own at a time when record numbers of people have been uprooted from their homes by wars and persecution, more than three million of them by conflicts in South Sudan, Nigeria and Mali that have caused widespread displacement both within and across national borders.
In eastern Niger’s Diffa region, the need for enhanced information management has become increasingly urgent since Boko Haram attacks last June forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes or refugee camps.
As of late October, more than 250,000 men, women and children had been displaced since 2015, many of them seeking shelter in up to 100 informal sites that had sprung up on either side of the main west-east highway from the capital Niamey, with some 20,000 in two camps.
The desperate mix of humanity included internally displaced people (IDPs) as well as Niger returnees and Nigerian refugees. Vulnerable to Boko Haram raids, the population is very mobile, making it difficult to track and map them as they move in search of safety and assistance.
UNHCR turned to a self-taught Nigerian drone maker, Aziz Kountche, to help understand the dynamics of the population movements. He created a simple but effective drone that looks like a model airplane. The T-800 M, which has government authorization to operate in a frontline area, captured video and still images to convert to accurate maps of the new settlements, which will be crucial in supporting the humanitarian response across an area the size of Belgium.
“With the use of the drone images, we want to provide a new level of mapping to strengthen our analysis of the context,” said UNHCR External Relations Officer Benoit Moreno. The images enabled the UN Refugee Agency and its partners to visualize the situation in the sites and identify and meet needs for multiple services, including water systems, latrines, education facilities and health care. It also aided registration of the displaced.
The small aircraft was used to provide detailed bird’s eye images of the two camps in the region, Sayam Forage refugee camp and Kabelawa IDP camp, and it revealed the considerable environmental damage caused by people cutting firewood around the spontaneous sites in an area where two thirds of the land is affected by desertification. The next drone flight should take place early next year.
In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where more than 32,000 Malian refugees remain four years after fleeing conflict in their homeland, UNHCR has been using a more sophisticated drone to monitor the needs of refugees. Many live in the arid Sahel region, too fearful of returning to Mali despite the signing of a peace accord last year.
At sprawling Goudoubo camp, home to some 9,640 refugees near the town of Dori, UNHCR recently piloted a four-propellor drone over the camp’s 12-kilometre-long and five-kilometre-wide area. Unlike the Diffa drone, this one used a video camera to film the shelters, primary school, market, health centre and the road to Dori.
In this harsh, beautiful and extensive environment, use of the drone has provided invaluable video information on how to provide assistance and ensure a sustainable daily life in an area of very few natural resources and infrastructure.
“Aerial views and camp mapping can help reshape our ability to respond to short-term and long-term needs. For instance, we could track the evolution of the locations of the shelters and the movements within the camps, but also document the evolution of the environmental context and the available natural resources in and around the camps. This would also help better prevent and mitigate the risks of natural disasters,” said Alpha Oumar, head of the UNHCR field office in Dori.
Meanwhile in Uganda, which hosts more than half-a-million South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR hopes to use drone technology to look at how refugee settlements grow and evolve. The project will focus on Bidibidi, which was opened in August and now shelters more than 200,000 people who have fled fresh fighting that erupted in Juba in July.
Part of a strategy to make more systematic use of drones, the machines will be used to show the settlement in various stages, from a small settlement in August to becoming one of the largest refugee-hosting areas in the world.
For UNHCR, the projects in hand are likely just the beginning. “We must recognize technological opportunities for the now, and more importantly for the future,” Harper says. “This is one example of technology coming online that we must utilize for the organization. If we can harness the potential of these interventions, we will not only do our job more efficiently but have a greater impact on persons of concern.”
2017-03-27Germany Plans New Drone Regulations
On January 18 2017 the German government introduced a draft regulation to create sufficient regulations to deal with these risks by amending the existing fragmented provisions and establishing rules to liberalise the commercial use of drones.
2017-03-27NASA Includes Swedish UAV in BVLOS Testing
Swedish manufacturer SmartPlanes has announced that the SmartPlanes Freya UAV is included in the NASA UAS Traffic Management (UTM) R&D Technical Capability Level 3 (TCL 3) project, at the FAA-designated Nevada UAS test site. SmartPlanes is represented by its US distributor Carbon Autonomous.
2017-03-23Drone World Expo 2017 – Registration Now Open
Registration is now open for Drone World Expo 2017. From October 3-4, the 3rd annual Drone World Expo will once again gather thousands of thought leaders, end-users and decision makers in the commercial drone industry at the San Jose Convention Center.
2017-03-22South Korea to Train 1,700 Drone Operators Annually
South Korea is planning to train 1,700 drone operators a year to meet growing demand in the commercial drone industry, the transport ministry said on Tuesday.
2017-03-22$1M Prize for Bridge Inspection by Drones
AutoModality, whose technology allows drones to automatically conduct close-up inspections of bridges, buildings, power lines and other structures, has won the $1 million grand prize in the Genius NY business competition.
2017-03-21First BVLoS Power Line Inspection Flight in New Zealand
A Taranaki drone company has made history by flying an unmanned aircraft ”beyond line of sight” to inspect power transmission lines in the Rimutaka Ranges.
2017-03-21Leidos Pilots New Service for UAS
Leidos Flight Service has created an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) service that helps safeguard the airspace by sending automatic notifications of unmanned aircraft operations to relevant groups.
2017-03-20DARPA Awards Phase 2 Gremlins Program Contracts
DARPA recently completed Phase 1 of its Gremlins program, which envisions volleys of low-cost, reusable unmanned aerial systems (UASs)—or “gremlins”—that could be launched and later retrieved in mid-air. Taking the program to its next stage, the Agency has now awarded Phase 2 contracts to two teams, one led by Dynetics, Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.) and the other by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (San Diego, Calif.).
2017-03-20Amazon Patents Drones with Telescoping Landing Legs
A diagram shows how an Amazon drone could land on a sloping surface while keeping its main frame level, thanks to telescoping landing legs. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
2017-03-17US Air Force Buys Drone-Snagging Shotgun Shells
US Air Force security forces, as well as other military personnel and federal law enforcement agencies, may soon be getting a new tool to take down small commercial drones: shotgun shells with a net. The special cartridge is just one system the Pentagon has been looking at to manage the growing threat from small and readily available quad-and hex-copter-type unmanned aircraft.
13 Takeaways from The White House Workshop
13 Takeaways from The White House Workshop
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