Sustainable development propelled forward

Drone article in Connected Magazine 20

Initiated by 4 enthusiasts, the Flying Labs network counts on local competencies to boost the use of drones in emerging countries. 

A couple of hundred projects later, the impact of this small ecosystem keeps growing.

A snake bite in the middle of the Amazonian Forest : a drone flies over the canopy to deliver a dose of serum. In Cameroon, forest wardens monitor national parks for poachers from above. In Tanzania, farmers control the health of their crops and deduce their potential income. Following a landslide in Nepal, an algorithm analyses aerial views to organise reconstruction. 

These applications, like several others, share one thing in common : they have been ensured by Flying Labs. This UAV professional network carries out local missions in emerging countries, consistent with the United Nations sustainable development objectives.

The concept’s origins go back to 2015 when members of two associations met to promote the use of drones for good. On the one hand, Patrick Meier and Andrew Schroeder from the US association UAviators ; on the other, Sonja Betschart and Adam Klaptocz from the Swiss Drone Adventures (that became Drone for Earth). Two of them work in the technological (development & hardware), the other two in the humanitarian field and all of them fly drones. They are all convinced that UAVs are excellent vectors for development.

Powerful data collection tools, drones are also excellent
for promoting technology to youth.

“ Training and controlling are simple ” explains Sonja Betschart. “ Preparation and data analysis - with existing software, algorithms and machine learning modules – don’t require complex training for the engineers either. These tools are a natural part of their activities, it doesn’t require a revolution where everything needs to be relearnt. ” 

The specialist readily compares drones with mobile phones, which have become omnipresent in emerging countries at incredible speed, thanks to a combination of usefulness and simplicity. 

With UAVs, the south opens access to geospatial data, like never before (nine applications out of ten are for data collection, and the rest are for transport). Accessing this data is infinitely easier and more cost-effective than obtaining it through satellites, planes, or helicopters. The areas covered are smaller, “ but there is often sufficient data for analysing a local or regional situation and for making a decision. Last but not least, adds Sonja Betschart, data acquisition is much more independent, “ local players produce their own data. ” 

Why isn’t the UAV potential better used in emerging countries, despite the existence of local professionals?

 “ We realised that what was missing above all was access to opportunities, ” said Sonja Betschart. “ Local competencies are still dispersed, barely visible, and the assumption that “Foreign experts are better ” still predominant. Not only do these experts lack deep knowledge of the place and its players, but they also leave with their technology and competencies once their mission is accomplished. Calling on them is not a sustainable approach. ” So, there was a need to develop local UAV competencies “ and we took up the challenge.

The four specialists partnered to create WeRobotics, a non-profit association that would take care of the networking. Then they selected the Flying Labs that would be members of the network. “ We started off with a two-year proof of concept in Nepal, Perou and Tanzania. It resulted in the social franchise model that we implemented in 2018. ”

The model has caught on straightaway through its “ bottom-up ” approach chosen by WeRobotics. Unlike development NGOs, there is no centralised unit that goes on to open local satellites. “ It is the local companies that contact us to join the network. It is also the companies themselves – and not WeRobotics - that propose pilot projects. ” By the way, the Labs are managed and financed locally. 

WeRobotics – comprising only a dozen people – acts mostly as a facilitator. It brings stakeholders together, creates support material, internal programmes to assist Flying Labs in developing, better managing projects, and measuring their impact. If required, it provides technical support. 

Representing all its members, the organisation has more impact when it comes to finding global partners for niche applications and local markets. It has successfully convinced an impressive number of them, including donors such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Autodesk Foundation ; major drone manufacturers, such as DJI, Skydio, Parrot; and software designers, such as Pix4D, Esri, Autodesk, who supply technologies and training ; bringing them together with the demand (the World Bank, UN agencies, NGOs, universities…), international players who are usually inaccessible for local UAV service suppliers. 

There are of course internal partners as well. Openness to cooperation, and willingness to help the other members of the network are part of the admission conditions. “ The Labs must share their experience via in-person or online meetings, document their projects and contribute to work groups ”. WeRobotics keeps an eye on things, and recontacts those who are too focused on their everyday activities and forget to share. It develops and continuously improves the tools fostering exchange. There are obvious benefits. Whenever a Flying Labs gets a request that is out of its scope (for instance landslide mapping), it can contact another member who has such experience (the Nepalese Lab in this case).


“ There is direct access to experts and data. The Labs can rely on existing material – processes, flight plans, data processing… - and avoid repeating the errors of others. They adapt their projects and then they in turn share their experience. ” Together, external partners and network members feed a particularly productive “ UAV ecosystem ”. There are plenty of opportunities and the Labs are better prepared to meet the demand. First of all, the demand for local solutions: “ 80% of requests come from local research centres, local NGOs, local communities and authorities ” explains Sonja Bertschart. 

WeRobotics’ “ bottom-up ” approach and the advantages of the network have convinced an increasing number of UAV players in emerging countries. The number of Flying Labs has been regularly increasing, even if some of them don’t survive, because they fail to ensure the long-term sustainability of their projects. Currently, there are about forty, half of them in Africa, 30% in South America and 20% in Asia. "

Since 2019, Flying Labs have ensured 400 applications in the form of local projects and training, contributing to public health, environmental protection, humanitarian actions, education, the economy… 

In addition to the above examples, they have transported COVID tests ; reported on illegal mines ; spread “ healthy ” mosquitoes to replace those infected by Zica or dengue fever ; measured air quality above waste dumps ; evaluated reconstruction after floods; censused birds and sharks on their breeding sites ; analysed urban development; livestock management; mapped soil erosion and deforestation. Another example: in Kenya, WeRobotics partnered with the EPFL, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, for a project using a swarm of drones to analyse and smooth traffic flows in Nairobi, one of the world’s most congested cities. 

Even if incomplete, this list illustrates the impressive diversity of what drones have to offer to the natural and human environment.

The impact of each project is remarkable. WeRobotics is also keen on promoting the global impact of its network in emerging countries. Sonja Betschart mentions the 400 people committed to Flying Labs, a quarter of them women (which is twice as many as the average in the area). She quotes the over 250 local partners assembled by the network and the 4,000 professionals who got training to integrate drones in sustainable development. Last but not least, the 35,000 people (from local authorities, companies and institutions) who have been involved in the hundreds of discussions, conferences and workshops.

The “ drone ecosystem ” does not attract adults only. With their futuristic looks, fluid flight and easy control, drones are excellent technology ambassadors for young people. WeRobotics counts a lot on this : three-quarters of Flying Labs organise STEM programmes, encouraging thousands of girls and boys to learn about drones and, by extension, robotics and data as well as technical and scientific professions in general. Another way of contributing to development.

How about the future of WeRobotics? Further network expansion of course, but not only. “ We also want to enhance quality. We are
working on the creation of centres of expertise – involving Flying Labs and its partners – that should be recognized both in the south and the north. ” Areas of expertise abound, whether directly linked with the use of UAVs (for example the Labs support authorities in developing rules and regulations), or stemming from field projects, “ for example from natural disaster management, urban development… ”

Actively involved with operations, for Sonja Betschart hardly a day goes by without a videoconference with one or two Flying Labs around the world. What she likes in these discussions is “ The enthusiasm, the competence and all the possible applications – I think we have just scratched the surface! The development of UAVs, their sensors or data processing will further increase their impact. ”

Are the seeds of sustainable development planted by drones ? It seems that the sky is no limit.