Pictures: Humanitarian UAV Mission to Vanuatu in Response to Cyclone Pam

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Above: Aéroport de Port Vila - Bauerfield International Airport. As we land, thousands of uprooted trees could be seen in almost every direction. Below:Massive roots were not enough to save these trees from Cyclone Pam. The devastation reminds us how powerful nature is.

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After getting clearance from the Australian Defense Force (ADF), we pack up our UAVs and head over to La Lagune for initial tests. Close collaboration with the military is an absolute must for humanitarian UAV missions. UAVs cannot operate in Restricted Operations Zones without appropriate clearance.

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We're in Vanuatu by invitation of the Government's National Disaster Risk Management Office (NDMO). So we're working very closely with our hosts to assess disaster damage and resulting needs. The government and donors need the damage quantified to assess how much funding is necessary for the recovery efforts; and where geographically that funding should be targeted.

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Ceci n'est pas un drone; what we found at La Lagune, where the ADF has set up camp. At 2200 every night we send the ADF our flight plan clearance requests for the following day. For obvious safety reasons, we never deviate from these plans after they've been approved.

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Unpacking and putting together the hexacopters can take a long time. The professional and certified UAV team from New Zealand (X-Craft) follows strict operational check lists to ensure safety and security. We also have a professional and certified team from Australia, Heliwest, which will be flying quadcopters. The UAV team from SPC is also joining our efforts. I'm proud to report that both the Australian & New Zealand teams were recruited directly from the pilot roster of the Humanitarian UAV Network.

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The payload (camera) attached to our hexacopters; not exactly a GoPro. We also have other sensors for thermal imaging, etc.

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Programming the test flights. Here's a quick video intro on how to program UAVs for autonomous flights.

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Night falls fast in Vanuatu...

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… So our helpful drivers kindly light up our work area.

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After flawless test flights; we're back at "HQ" to program the flight paths for tomorrow morning's humanitarian UAV missions. The priority survey areas tend to change on a daily basis as the government gets more information on which outlying islands have been hardest hit. Our first mission will focus on an area comprised of informal settlements.

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Dawn starts to break at 0500. We haven't gotten much sleep.

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At 0600, we arrive at the designated meeting point, the Beach Bar. This will be our base of operations for this morning's mission.

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The flight plans for the hexacopters are ready to go. We have clearance from Air Traffic Control (ATC) to fly until 0830 as manned aircraft start operating extensively after 0900. So in complex airspaces like this one in Vanuatu's Port Vila, we only fly very early in the morning and after 1700 in the evening. We have ATC's direct phone number and are in touch with the tower at all times.

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Could this be the one and only SXSW 2015 bag in Vanuatu?

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All our multirotor UAVs have been tested once again and are now ready to go. The government has already communicated to nearby villages that UAVs will be operating between 0630-0830. We aim to collect aerial imagery at a resolution of 4cm-6cm throughout our missions.

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An old basketball court; perfect for take-off & landing.

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And of course, when we're finally ready to fly, it starts to pour. Other challenges include an ash cloud from a nearby volcano. We've also been told that kids here are pro's with slingshots (which is one reason why the government informed local villagers of the mission; i.e., to request that kids not use the UAVs for target practice).

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After some delays, we are airborne at last.

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Operating the UAViators DJI Phantom...

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… Which I'm using purely for documentary purposes. In coming days, we'll be providing our government partners with a hands-on introduction on how to operate Phantom II's. Building local capacity is key; which is why this action item is core to the Humanitarian UAV Network's Code of Conduct.

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Can you spot the hexacopter? While there's only one in the picture below, we actually have two in the air at different altitudes which we are operating by Extended Line of Site and First Person View as a backup.

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More aerial shots I took using the Phantom (not for damage assessment; simply for documentary purposes).

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Can you spot the basketball court?

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Large clouds bring back the rain; visibility is reduced. We have to suspend our flights; will try again after 1700.

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Meanwhile, my Phantom's GoPro snaps this close up picture on landing.

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Stay tuned for updates and in particular the very high resolution aerial imagery that we'll be posting to MapBox in coming days; along with initial analysis carried out by multiple partners including Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and QCRI's MicroMappers. Many thanks to MapBox for supporting our efforts. We will also be overlaying the aerial imagery analysis over this MicroMappers crisis map of ground-based pictures of disaster damage in order to triangulate the damage assessment results.

In the meantime, more information on this Humanitarian UAV Mission to Vanuatu--spearheaded by the World Bank in very close collaboration with the Government and SPC--can be found on the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) Ops page here. UAViators is an initiative I launched following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. More on UAViators and the use of humanitarian UAVs in my new book Digital Humanitarians.

Important: this blog post is a personal update written in my personal capacity; none of the above is in any way shape or form a formal communique or press release by any of the partners. Official updates will be provided by the Government of Vanuatu and World Bank directly. Please contact me here for official media requests; kindly note that my responses will need to be cleared by the Government & Bank first.

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Comment by JB on March 30, 2015 at 4:45am

Hey Patrick this is awesome work yoir doing in dire circumstances. I think i might have to sign up as well so I can help. 

I was wonering if you took and fixed wings with or just multicopters? A good VTOL fixed wing could cover a larger area in less time, and still be able to land in restricted areas like basketball courts.

Keep us posted on how you go please. 

All the best.

Regards JB

Comment by Patrick Meier on March 30, 2015 at 5:27am

Many thanks JB, yes we've also got one fixed wing for the longer distances. But in complex airspaces like the one around near Port Vila, multirotors are the way to go. Will plan on posting a summary of the full mission next month. 

Thanks again,

PM

Comment by JB on March 30, 2015 at 9:11am

Hi Patrick

Sorry for my poor spelling and grammar...I suppose that's what you get if you try posting from a phone while your brother is "trying" to drive! :$

It's quite an experience being on the scene at such awful events. It changes one's perspective, both on what nature can do, and what humans can do in response! :-) I look forward to your summary. You seem to have internet, so I'm assuming you have power as well where you are to charge the UAV batteries etc? If you don't mind me asking how long will you need to stay to finish your job?

Comment by Patrick Meier on March 30, 2015 at 11:25am

Thanks JB; we have generators to recharge batteries in outlying islands. Mission should be completed by Sunday although we may need to extend 2-3 days given weather issues.

Comment by Nick McCarthy on March 30, 2015 at 4:28pm

I see one of your airframes is an Align M690L that you've modified to add a Pixhawk - how's that combination working?


100KM
Comment by Ben Dellar on March 30, 2015 at 6:57pm

Great work guys - awesome to see the technology really being put through it's paces. Let's hope for further airspace integration in the future to allow more routine ops!

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