We’re always delighted to see drones being used for good, particularly if they help drive drone innovation in the UK and beyond. It’s also easy to forget that there’s things out there in the world other than Covid that still need to be tackled. So, when we started hearing about UK space projects using drones to boost global sustainable development, we wanted to know more.
It all started with a day…
On World Humanitarian Day 2020, the UK Space Agency pledged £3.4 million of additional funding for ten cutting-edge projects that will assist academics in the UK to tackle problems of global sustainability and development. As an important element of operational delivery, drones will play a key role in many of the projects, with the space agency highlighting the cost and efficiency savings of utilising drones in a recent report. The newly announced projects vary greatly, from assisting with detecting human trafficking and forced labour to tackling the spread of malaria at source across the globe. However, each of the projects will involve developing innovative solutions to devastating and complex global problems by utilising the space expertise of scientists in the UK.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “From flooding to climate change, around the world, people continue to be affected by crises that are having a profound impact on their countries’ economies and their lives.
“These 10 new projects have the potential to provide solutions to the world’s biggest development problems by using the latest and most high-tech space technologies such as satellites, and help improve millions of people’s lives in developing countries.”
Using drones to fight the spread of malaria
While the world battles COVID-19, another deadly disease rages on. With the attention of many world leaders focussed on both directly tackling the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic and social fallout from lockdown measures, it can be easy to forget about the other deadly viruses, such as malaria, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. There were around 228 million cases of malaria in 2018, resulting in 405,000 deaths. The disease is a devastating global problem, and finding long-term and sustainable solutions to tackling it is vital to the long-term sustainability and growth of countries plagued by malaria.
One of the key projects receiving funding from the UK Space Agency uses air-borne, satellite and ground-based sensing technology to capture data. Scientists at The Open University will use this data to detect the breeding hotspots of mosquitos, where they can then target the disease at source. Once these breeding grounds have been identified, drones will be used to spray the larvae of mosquitos. The key consideration here is that other species will not be affected, as this could have an impact on other environmental elements. Led by Senior Lecturer at the Open University, Dr Andrea Berardi, the ‘DETECT: Integrated Space, Technology, Vector Control project‘ has received £379,000 from the UK Space Agency. Dr Berardi is part of the Faculty of Science, Technology and Mathematics at the Open University, and will be the Principal Investigator.
He said: “It is worth remembering that all of the other diseases like malaria, which existed before COVID-19, are just as problematic, during this pandemic, and in some cases are being exacerbated by the disruption caused.”
The new project clearly comes at a time where it is greatly needed, and if successful could help to diminish, if not eradicate, the disease in the countries outlined in the project.
How does the satellite and drone technology work?
Very simply, the idea is to detect and target malaria at its source – mosquito larvae. There are, of course, many elements to targeting mosquitos, including the impact of anything done to the surrounding environment. Diseases carried by mosquitos have a huge impact on developing countries. The DETECT project plans to deliver significant developments by March 2021.
The researchers plan to deliver an established drone and ground station which has been adequately tested, as well as a ‘data hub’ design. The researchers will also deliver the required component specification for environmental sensing and analysis based in the community as well as for the drone-sprayer operation.
In addition, researchers have set out that they plan to build an information system, which allows for the prediction of environmental modelling at the breeding sites of mosquitos in real-time.
Crucial to the long-term sustainability of the project is a business model that will support the Indigenous Environmental Information and Decision Support Hubs after the project has come to an end. As a result, the project will also deliver a network of established stakeholders who are willing and able to support the implementation of the system within target regions in Africa, South America and Guyana.
Dr Berardi said: “Our ground-breaking initiative, led by a diverse and experienced team, is an opportunity to combine cutting-edge remote sensing technologies, human-centred design and targeted drone spraying of biocontrol agents to deploy an alternative community-led vector-control strategy.”
He went on to describe how collaborating with local communities will be important, and could lead to establishing and developing a cost-effective solution “potentially revolutionising mosquito vector control across the world” which would save a great number of lives.
In particular, the DETECT project ambitiously aims to predict and destroy all outbreaks of malaria in French Guyana. In French Guyana, around 90 per cent of the land is made up of Amazon rainforest. The technology used will predict where mosquitos will thrive and breed by capturing data that detects areas where the air temperature is warm and waters are calm. Mosquitos need calm waters to lay eggs, and typically puddles, ponds and pools make for the perfect breeding ground. After detecting these areas, sprayer drones will be deployed. Using drones in this way to release biocontrol agents combats malaria at its earliest stages, while causing minimal disruption to other species and the environment.
A spokesman for the UK Space Agency said: “Earth-gazing satellites have the potential to be one of our most dynamic weapons against disease outbreaks of all kinds – they can help us predict outbreaks in the same way we predict the weather.
“Variables such as temperature, rainfall, vegetation, land cover and land use all affect the number of mosquitoes present, and their ability to transmit viruses. Today these variables can be measured from remote sensors on satellites, planes and unmanned aerial vehicles. We can then estimate the likelihood of mosquito presence and disease transmission.”
He went on to state that evidence proves that countries free from malaria enjoy five times the economic growth compared to countries ravaged by the disease. He said the disease really holds many countries back from reaching their full potential, mentioning countries in West Africa in particular. Young populations in West Africa should be driving local economies, but malaria continues to hinder growth.
He said: “But no country can undertake the ambitious goal of ending malaria alone. Global partnerships among donors, local governments and the private sector are critical to freeing communities from malaria.
“The world is at a tipping point in the fight against malaria. This moment is an opportunity to push progress forward rather than risk the dangers of a backslide.”
The funding for this project comes from the International Partnership Programme (IPP) of the UK Space Agency. The aim of the IPP is to make the most of UK space expertise particularly in data services and satellite technology, with the goal of delivering world-leading solutions to global challenges and problems. The project also strives to utilise this expertise, funding and development to build relationships that can lead to opportunities for growth in the UK space sector. The announcement of the additional funding comes alongside a report analysing the impact of IPP projects currently underway. You can read the IPP report on existing projects here
Head of International Relations at the UK Space Agency, Liz Cox, said: “The compelling results of the previous projects cement the case for investment in space for sustainable development. IPP is not only demonstrating the value of satellite solutions and improving the lives of people on the ground in developing countries but also facilitating effective alliances between the United Kingdom and international organisations. It’s a ‘win-win’ and an exciting moment in the Programme.”
The International Partnership Programme launched in 2016 and since then has provided grant funding for 33 projects across 44 developing countries. The project spans the globe, working in Latin America, Africa and the Asian Pacific. The projects that are part of the IPP are intended to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), including to provide support for precision agriculture, to create early warning systems in order to prevent disasters, to improve maritime safety, and to forecast and prevent disease forecasting.
So far, the programme has generated £279 million for the UK economy in terms of Gross Value Added, while supporting 3,300 jobs across the globe. For every £1 invested in IPP projects, the UK gains more than £2.50. The development of the UK space sector is a great economic success story. The sector has grown by more than 60% since 2010. The UK space sector supports around £300 billion of UK economic activity by the use of satellite services. However, the UK government has recently established the National Space Council, which will consider how space policy can improve the prosperity of the country and the UK’s place in the world. The space programme can also improve the UK’s security.
The overarching aim of the IPP is to innovate, develop and use satellite technology, including drones, along with data services to tackle development issues. One of the key factors to ensure projects are contributing to the overarching aims of the project is to monitor and analyse how well projects have worked and met their individual aims. As a result, an evaluation of how the IPP has delivered on its pledges so far was conducted and recently published. The analysis draws conclusions that are positive for increased drone use.
In the forestry category, aerial photography, drones and foot patrols were deemed to be eight times more efficient in the short term, and 11.8 times more efficient in the long term when compared to non-space alternatives. This allows £12.8 per hectare of deforestation to be avoided.
Similarly in agriculture, drones, foot patrols and extension workers were deemed to be six times more efficient in the short term and 6.7 times more efficient in the longer term, resulting in a gain of £0.05 per £1 of crop.
As we have seen, this project is beneficial both for global development and for the UK economy. We will be very interested to see the outcome of the project and the impact it has had next year.
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We regularly feature stories about drones for good on our website. From providing essential assistance to the countries in need of cost-effective disease prevention to the groundbreaking work carried out by drone businesses in mapping issues caused by climate change; the role drones play in assisting communities throughout the world in managing, mitigating and preventing death and disease is unparalleled. The innovation in drone technology and the increased use of drones is important in meeting the challenges and dangers faced by communities all over the world.