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Image: Flood in Bosnia and Herzegovina

A few months back an employee here at 3D Robotics told me, “The day one of our drones saves a life, just one life, everything we’ve ever done here will have been worth it — everything, everything.”

No one understands this better than Patrick Meier, founder of UAViators.org (pronounced “U-aviators”), a global humanitarian network of professional, civilian, and responsible hobbyist drone pilots.

“The question today isn’t if drones will one day assist in humanitarian efforts,” Patrick says. “They already do. The question now is how to facilitate that in the most effective, safe, and responsible way.”

That is, when it comes to the usefulness of drones, we’re not talking about “possibility” or “the future” anymore. We’re talking about the present, about having right here and now a new way to solve old problems.

One persistent problem with disaster relief efforts has been that all of our traditional delivery, survey, and assessment mechanisms are in some way constrained by infrastructure — roads, airports, waterways, railways, power and communication lines, etc. — which in crisis zones are obviously often destroyed or unusable. Drones are unique in that they can achieve these same goals while operating outside of infrastructure, offering “frictionless” access to treacherous parts of the world where and when help is needed. And because drones carry less risk and expense than manned flight, and are also more mobile and flexible, more people can use them to gather more information more quickly, and often in greater detail, with much less risk to life.

The Belize Fisheries Department launches a conservation drone to monitor illegal fishing.

And these aren’t petty capabilities, “local drone does good” window dressing to attract a buying public to a new technology. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, drones were sent in to map radiation levels where no person could safely go. And after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines last year, drones conducted aerial damage assessments of otherwise inaccessible areas. In Kenya it’s been reported that drones could reduce poaching by up to 96%, and in the poaching war currently underway in South Africa’s Kruger National Park — every four days a park ranger is killed in firefights with poachers — the technology promises similar and very welcome returns.

Meier realized that if you could safely and reliably crowdsource this power to qualified and certified volunteer pilots around the world, you’d have a global response network with nearly zero lag time. (This video from this week’s Napa Valley earthquake was posted on the UAViators Crisis Map the day of the quake.) And to take that even further, you could combine that scope of information with the analytical power of Big Data. Meier believes that this combination — user-generated aerial imagery paired with widespread mobile access — will greatly increase a community’s ability to self-organize. And so he organized his own community, UAViators.org.

Though they’ve only been active for six months or so, they’ve come quite a long way. Check out their successes below.

The Crisis Map

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 1.28.48 PM

Provides situational awareness in the form of an interactive map of aerial videos from crisis zones around the world. Pilots upload their video, and anyone with an internet connection will have free and immediate access to valuable and actionable information. This month, the map will also enable the sharing of static pictures.

A “TripAdvisor” for Drones

UAViators has also opened a Wiki travel guide, a resource for information on drone laws and regulations around the world, and a place for pilots to share their travel experiences. It’s open for contributions.

The UAV Review

Meier’s team is in the second stage of reviewing over 170 UAV platforms, including several 3DR models (we’re looking pretty darn good), along a wide range of criteria from flight time to payload capacity to cameras and software for image analysis. The results from the first stage are posted in an open google spreadsheet, and Patrick has invited anyone to contribute.

The United Nations

Echoing our own sentiments at 3DR — we sit on the UAViators board of advisors — Meier says, “We really need enlightened leadership and policy making in the humanitarian UAV space.” This is a big reason he organized an Experts Meeting at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The meeting will be held this November, and will feature representatives and volunteers from across the industry.

UAViators.org invites people around the world to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the humanitarian space: pilots, imagery analysts, policy folks, hardware/software experts, researchers, and anyone else in a position to help. Because in this case it’s quite literal: we need all the help we can get.

Learn more about UAViators.org.