When Dania Montenegro stepped out of the boat onto Gardi Sugdub, a tiny Caribbean island off the coast of Panama last fall, it was hurricane season. She walked through ankle-deep water on flooded dirt pathways through the densely populated island. While the storm battered the island for hours, Montenegro took care to make sure her drone stayed dry and its batteries stayed charged. She is an engineer for nautical sciences and the coordinator for Panama Flying Labs, an organization that uses drones to collect data and make maps that will help communities across Panama find solutions to some of their most vexing challenges — from climate change, to reforestation, to saving breeding grounds for turtles.
Flying Labs like Montenegro’s exist not just in Panama but all over the world. Together, they create a large network of organizations based in countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia that use drones to capture a lot of data that has historically been inaccessible to the people who live in the places most impacted by climate-related disasters, pandemics, and the like. That’s why Montenegro made the several-hour journey from her home in Panama City to this remote island with a drone in tow.
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By late afternoon, the storm finally cleared, giving Montenegro a window to send the drone into the sky. It hovered almost 300 feet above the island and snapped hundreds of high-resolution photos. Later, Montenegro digitally stitched the images together to create a detailed map of the island. She used artificial intelligence to add another data layer that included an inventory of the houses, boats, and satellite antennas.
More than a thousand people live on Gardi Sugdub, which is barely above sea level and is just 10 acres in size. Montengro says every inch of the island is occupied by a dense and interconnected network of homes and structures.
The Guna have lived on this archipelago of nearly 400 islands, including Gardi Sugdub, since the middle of the 19th century, according to a report by Displacement Solutions, a Switzerland-based nonprofit that works with the UN, governments, and communities to address the loss of land to issues including climate change. The Guna moved to the islands to escape disease on the mainland, but they still own land there to farm. Fishing, fabric art, and tourism are also components of their livelihoods.
Gardi Sugdub is one of many island communities across the globe facing rising sea levels from climate change, which threatens to destroy or displace their way of life entirely. According to climate.gov, global sea levels have risen 8 to 9 inches since 1880. And scientists estimate that the mean for global sea levels will rise at least another foot by the end of this century.
The people who live on Gardi Sugdub have a plan to relocate to mainland Panama, but moving an entire sea-centered community is not simple. In addition to building the infrastructure, there are cultural and logistical hurdles. Government-built housing will result in permanent structures, which function very differently from those on the island that are built from reed stalks (Arundo donax) and can easily be modified. Fishers, too, will need to figure out how to store and access their boats for daily trips to the sea.
“They need to reorganize their life,” Montenegro says. “So having numbers, having statistics, this is the type of information that will help them to understand what they will need for relocation.”
Montenegro also flew her drone over the proposed relocation site, just onshore from the island, so the community could compare one map with the other. This information should help them better visualize their needs, so they can plan the logistics for their upcoming move, which has yet to be scheduled.
The Power of Data
“[Drones] are a very easy tool that allows you to acquire data,” says Sonja Betschart, co-founder of WeRobotics, a nonprofit based in Switzerland and the United States that set up the Flying Labs network. Over the past five years, drones have become an important tool in climate, conservation, and social justice work by empowering local people via access to data. WeRobotics acts as a kind of facilitator between tech companies that make drones and the local Flying Labs that are using the drones for environmental and social good all over the world.
Betschart has a background in business and technology, having worked for start-ups like Pix4D, a drone-mapping software. She also knows the value of data in conservation, having spent almost three years in Africa and Brazil setting up local conservation and philanthropic projects. She says she never had enough budget for satellite data, and drones were not widely used at the time, in the early 2010s. “So a lot of the research we did, it was quite incomplete,” she says.
When she came back to Switzerland in 2013, she started working for a start-up in the drone industry and quickly realized drones’ potential for conservation and philanthropic work. WeRobotics goes a step further, embracing a philosophy that the company calls the “power of local.”
Because drones are so much more accessible than satellites, they can put data collection in the hands of local people with just a few days of training and a thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. That means that drones have the potential to shift the balance of power. Whereas an international NGO or nonprofit might come into a community with their team of experts, gadgets, and agendas, in the case of Flying Labs, local people are the experts on the issues that matter most to them.
“International experts, they’re missing the cultural background,” Betschart says. “Our local experts, they’re living there. They cannot get back on a plane and disappear after they get the data. They’re part of the community, so you have to do things in a very different way.”
From the Mountains to the Sea
The first group WeRobotics started working with to develop Flying Labs was in Nepal. In 2015, when two earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.3 killed more than 8,600 people, drones were largely unavailable, says Uttam Pudasaini, a geomatics engineer and the coordinator for Nepal Flying Labs. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, he says Westerners brought drones to Nepal mostly to capture media footage and also to experiment with providing relief in a disaster setting. Shortly thereafter, Pudasaini participated in a training hosted by the Humanitarian UAV Network.
“During this training, I got a chance to hold a drone in my hand for around five minutes and fly it,” he says. “That was a completely amazing experience for me.” That was the first time Pudasaini flew a drone, and he says he knew it would be a turning point for him and his country.
Five years later, Pudasaini is using drones to monitor glacial lakes, map devastation from climate-related disasters, and deliver medication to tuberculosis patients who live in remote parts of the Himalayas. By charting a direct flight path, a drone can save a patient a five- or six-hour journey through mountainous terrain to get to a doctor’s office.
Due to the country’s challenging geography, Nepal Flying Labs has pioneered methods to fly drones in high-alpine environments. The air is thinner and weather and low temperatures can be tricky for battery function, not to mention the navigational complexities of the mountains themselves. Pudasaini is now sharing his expertise from the Himalayas with people flying drones in the Peruvian Andes.
“If there is a need for how drones can be utilized in any other mountainous setting around the world, then the experience from Nepal could be beneficial to them,” Pudasaini says.
This is just one example of how local Flying Labs collaborate, sharing knowledge across the network to help each other learn from firsthand experience. To Pudasaini and other drone pilots like him, the ways in which drones can be used to solve social and environmental problems seem endless. In Peru, drones are collecting evidence to stop illegal mining and logging in the Amazon. In Senegal, drones are helping farmers monitor their land for signs of salinity, which severely impacts crops. In Tanzania, drones spray a non-toxic, biodegradable formula that kills mosquito larvae and helps combat the spread of malaria.
In addition to the cross-country collaboration, at nearly every Flying Lab, scientists are also training young people to fly drones — and how to fly them according to a set of ethics adopted worldwide — so that the access to technology and the development of expertise continues to grow. As a result, the network of Flying Labs is starting to bloom and grow on its own. There are now 29 labs in 29 countries, and Betschart says a 30th should be online by the end of the year.
“This is what we wanted at WeRobotics,” says Betschart. “Our long-term dream is to disappear and have the network live by itself.”