Flying Labs Network turns five
Nine thousand dead. 22,000 injured. Thousands and thousands of homes reduced to rubble; and hundreds of thousands of people left homeless.
That’s was Nepal on April 25, 2015. It was approaching midday when the ever-feuding Indian and Eurasian plates breathed, and a largely unsuspecting Nepal took a hit – a nation plunged into sudden mourning by the devastating earthquake in the Gorkha area that was so powerful it triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest 227 kilometres away, which killed 22 people. Another powerful aftershock on May 12 accounted for the lives of a further 200 people in both Nepal and India.
In the wake of this devastation, a group of engineers at Kathmandu university decided they could no longer afford to stand by as their fellow country people struggled to return to a semblance of normalcy. They called in their partners at WeRobotics to help with training on how to scale the positive impact of recovery efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake disaster.
And so the two, along with Kathmandu Living Labs Meier, shook hands on the birth of the first Flying Labs franchise in the world. WeRobotics’ friends, DJI and Pix4D chipped in with drones and software.
“Our Flying Labs are local innovation labs used to transfer both relevant skills and appropriate robotics solutions sustainably to outstanding local partners who need these the most,” wrote Patrick Meier – the WeRobotics Co-Founder whose dream it was to see local providers leading the realisation of robotics solutions to humanitarian disasters – in a 2016 blog celebrating the launch of Nepal Flying Labs the previous year.
“The co-creation of these Flying Labs includes both joint training and applied projects customised to meet the specific needs & priorities of our local partners. We founded WeRobotics to counter the foreign-first, top-down, and techno-centric approach by shifting power to local experts.”
The Power of Local. It is a running theme for the WeRobotics non-profit, which just this past week celebrated five years of cooperation with local drone-based technology providers via the co-creation of the Flying Labs network. It might have taken a lot of convincing for international organisations to trust the local start-ups with projects they would otherwise have passed to international experts before the intervention of WeRobotics; but they worked at it, and kept pushing – to a point where they now stand proud with over thirty thriving flying labs offering Drones-as-a-Service to humanitarian situations in their localities all over the Global South.
On their fifth birthday this September; the Flying Labs family has just welcomed Madagascar as the 31st member.
The ride has seen its ups and downs; which is why, in the fledgling days of 2015, the company was overjoyed to experience the first fruits of this power of local just months after the initial training in Kathmandu.
“We were approached by a British company that needed aerial surveys of specific areas for a project that the Nepal Government had contracted them to carry out,” Meier said. “They wanted to hire us for this project; but we proposed instead that they hire our partners at Nepal Flying Labs since the latter were then better equipped to carry out the surveys themselves.”
Besides the obvious benefit of creating employment opportunities for the locals, the idea of local flying lab start-ups gives an opportunity for local experts to take part in the development of areas which they have an intimate knowledge of; hence their commitment to local projects will be more hands-on than if expatriate knowledge is imported for the job. Because the expatriates will just come in, do the job, then leave with their knowledge, with no post-project benefits for the local community.
That was why WeRobotics recommended Nepal Flying labs again in 2016, when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) knocked on WeRobotics’ door in search of a foreign company to carry out aerial surveys for a food security project in Nepal. And when the World bank got in touch with a contract for a project in Jamaica; they were redirected to the doorstep of Jamaica Flying Labs. The same thing happened again when the same bank started another project in Indonesia – with no franchise in the country yet, Meier and his colleagues recommended the services of Philippines Flying Labs; which is closest to Indonesia.
In that time, the Flying labs family was spreading its wings; Tanzania followed Nepal, with Peru opening its doors soon after. In no time, flying labs were flying their flags all over the Global South. with eighteen taking root in Africa, six in Asia, five in Latin America; and one in Europe. Headed by indigenous citizens, these franchises have been at the forefront of pushing for local technological solutions to local responses in health service delivery, disaster response, environmental protection; as well as offering training to young hopefuls looking to join the drone industry. And when a project proves bigger than one flying lab can partake, neighbours will fly in to lend a hand.
It makes Meier’s heart sing to see this cooperation; because if there is anything he hates on earth, it is witnessing events being held about the issues in the Global South – without the involvement of people from the Global South.
We put a few questions to him as he and his growing family celebrate their fifth anniversary; the man will not sleep; let alone rest while there are still places where the world denies opportunities to local technology providers.
Five years and more than 30 flying labs later, how rewarding has been the experiencing of empowering local drone start-ups to spearhead projects in the areas they live?
The best part has been to see local experts, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists connect through the Flying Labs network. When India Flying Labs reaches out to Cote d’Ivoire Flying Labs for insights on agriculture, for example, I find this direct collaboration and learning to be very rewarding.
To be sure, there is far more expertise and experience within the Flying Labs network as there is within the small NGO called WeRobotics. And that’s what it’s all about, connecting and support that expertise. Note that Flying Labs are not limited to empowering local drone start-ups but also local NGOs, universities and more.
It feels like you are designing epicentres of growth in the Global South with each lab you welcome into the family. How have the Flying Labs franchises in operation right now taken up the challenge of the humanitarian work in their communities? How effective have they been in helping in the development of their communities?
I would point you to our blog for examples of Flying Labs engaged in humanitarian and development work. Individual Flying Labs are also in a better position to help with this, since they are the ones leading these projects and therefore far better able to talk about them than I am. Flying Labs are not really a “franchise” per se although we ourselves have admittedly used that term in the past. But “franchise” doesn’t accurately describe the Flying Labs network since Flying Labs are truly independent and WeRobotics doesn’t take any commission on Flying Labs projects.
Is it true that Flying Labs will be weaned from WeRobotics, and will be a stand-alone entity? If so, when is this happening, and could you explain how they will operate henceforth?
Yes, FlyingLabs.org will be co-created as a separate legal entity led entirely by local experts. As such, WeRobotics’ role as the main enabler of individual Flying Labs will be taken over by FlyingLabs.org. But FlyingLabs.org will do more than simply take over the responsibilities that WeRobotics currently has, the new entity will take the Flying Labs network to the next level in a way that WeRobotics (an NGO based in the Global North) simply cannot.
This will be a process and won’t happen overnight. A “Flying Council” composed of Flying Labs has already been set up with and by Flying Labs to drive the process forward. The Flying Council has already met several times and will be running a series of co-creation workshops in October and November 2020 to create the foundation and timeline for FlyingLabs.org.
Will we continue to see the current growth trajectory of one Flying Lab per country; or there will come a time when more labs will be opened in the same country? How big does the Flying labs family hope to be?
We’re continuing to see steady demand for Flying Labs, so we expect the network to continue growing in response to this demand. As for more labs opening up in the same country, when there is interest for this we typically encourage interested parties to collaborate and join efforts. This may change in the future, and this change will be guided by FlyingLabs.org.
How vital is drone technology to the growth of Global South communities?
I would suggest asking this question to the experts themselves across the Flying Labs network as they can speak with a lot more insights than I can on this question.
We understand that neighbouring Flying Labs work together when need arises; but in the five years that they have been in operation, have there been gatherings where all the family members meet regularly to compare and share experiences? If not, are there plans to hold such conferences in future?
as of now, we’ve had two in-person Flying Labs Retreats and recently had our first Flying Labs wide digital retreat. These Retreats, which are co-created with and by Flying Labs, offer the opportunity for Flying Labs to share best practices and lessons learned.
In addition to these Retreats, Flying Labs hold quarterly regional calls where they also share their insights with each other. Regardless of how these insights are shared, they are added to the Flying Labs Knowledge Sharing Platform called WeShare, which all Flying Labs have access to.
What should the world to promote local solutions, like WeRobotics has done by creating Flying Labs for local drone-based solutions? How high are your hopes in seeing other industries following your precedent so they help local communities understand the need to lead local development themselves?
We need to change mindsets by actively promoting, demonstrating and expanding local expertise. In addition to facilitating knowledge exchange and technology transfer, we need to close the opportunity divide by transferring opportunities back to local experts. To make this happen, one of our main goals moving forward is to drive the adoption of the Flying Labs Model at scale across all industries and sectors. In other words, we will redouble our efforts for systems change.