We interviewed Sonja Betschart, Co-founder and CEO of WeRobotics, an entrepreneurial initiative that develops technological projects with drones in countries of the Global South to eliminate the existing digital divide and generate social welfare.
Sonja, tell us how was WeRobotics project born and what is the philosophy behind it?
In the Global North, we take the widespread introduction of new technologies like drones and AI and the opportunities they create for granted. Unfortunately, countries in the Global South often don’t have easy access to new technologies and their possible applications, creating a so called “Digital Divide”. WeRobotics was born out of the Co-Founders passion for how robotics technologies can impact social good. We believe that localizing robotics technologies in a sustainable and meaningful way will allow to solve challenges that are unsolved today and create new opportunities and jobs in the Global South.
We also believe that we can accelerate location by creating sector- oriented program tracks, for example for Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Preparedness, Health, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Development. And that by creating a global community, we can widely share our learnings, including through South-to-South learning initiatives, to keep on reducing the digital divide.
WeRobotics is a project that makes use of innovative tools such as drones, to improve lives. Can you explain us a little more?
Drones allow to acquire geospatial data not only in a much more affordable way, but also in a timely manner. Acquired images allow to create a new perspective, a new point of view. And they can be used for direct analysis or to create highly precise maps and 3D models. This new kind of data allows to support decision making for a wide variety of social challenges, for example to quickly decide on how to manage disasters like floods, earthquakes and landslides, already a few hours after the disaster has occurred; or to assess growth and health of agriculture products to reduce pre-harvest loss; or provide on-demand, affordable data to support nature conservation initiatives. To mention just a few examples….
From your perspective within WeRobotics, how do you think technology and innovation can help improve lives in developing countries?
In today’s world, technology plays a key role in social innovation. As emerging technologies, including civil drones, become more and more affordable, they do not only allow for new applications but most importantly to build new solutions and services in low-income countries. The only boundary to overcome is, as mentioned earlier, the “Digital Divide”. When looking more specifically at localization of robotics technology, drones for example allow to acquire data in a timely and affordable way that can provide data products and valuable information for a number of social-good sectors. For example, maps created hours or days only after a natural disaster, to assess damage and organize help more efficiently, vegetation indexes that help to analyze crop health and improve yield, missing geospatial data for environmental analysis to improve nature conservation efforts, and maps and 3D models to assess climate change issues such as landslides. Drones also provide new ways of delivering urgent medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas.
How do your sector-based programs contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals? What is the importance given to the SDGs in this project?
Our model addresses a total of 9 SDGs through 3 key activities: localization through our Flying Labs network, acceleration through our sector-oriented program tracks and sharing through our global community. This shows that technology is a key driver for SDGs, currently the most widespread indicators of assessing social good impact. Hence SDGs are a universal language that unites all key stakeholders, they are important not only to our organization but all organizations that dedicate their work to social good.
Your team is co-creating a global network of “Flying Labs” in low-income countries. Where are they located and how do they involve local population in daily activities?
Our goal is to create a widespread network of Flying Labs – robotic knowledge hubs – in the Global South. Currently our network counts 9 Flying Labs, in Tanzania, Kenya, Peru, Panama, Dominican Republic, Nepal, Fiji, Philippines and Reunion. In the coming months, Benin and Cameroon will follow and we will keep on adding to this growing network.
Through our Flying Labs network, we localize the use of robotics technologies as we believe that only localization provides meaningful, responsible and sustainable use of emerging technologies. Local challenges ask for local solutions, and who better than the local population to identify and provide solutions? Flying Labs provide technical hard- and software training to build up local workforces, initiate pilot and research projects to create local use cases and promote the safe and responsible use of aerial, marine and terrestrial robotics. An important added value of creating such a network is to enable South-to-South collaboration and sharing of experiences and learnings.
What impact do these actions have on the local populations?
Our Flying Labs tackle Social Good challenges in the humanitarian aid, environmental, health and development sectors. For example, seasonal floods, pre-harvest loss in agriculture, landslides due to climate change issues, urban area development and land rights initiatives, and illegal logging impact populations’ daily lives.
Today, no data is virtually available to address these issues. Our Flying Labs and the small service companies help to incubate, provide timely and adapted data to local actors so that they can better understand and manage these issues effectively. Hence impact is twofold: provide localized solutions using emerging technologies to solve local challenges and creating local markets to sustainably do so.
WeRobotics is closely related to NGOs, government agencies, universities and institutions. How do you handle a multi- stakeholder environment model?
One of our main activities is creating a global community that connects all the stakeholders and widely shares learnings, best practices and guidelines. While our Flying Labs build up and facilitate local robotics ecosystems, connecting the various stakeholders (coming from education, NGOs, government and the private sector) and create local markets, we do the same from a global perspective, bringing together the local and global actors through blog posts, webinars, guidelines and conferences.
WeRobotics also includes an online Training Academy. What kind of activities does it offer? What are the trainings’ expected outcomes?
While our Flying Labs provide various hand-on trainings locally and regionally, we want to allow a larger public to understand how emerging technologies like drones can help them find new solutions. Creating online training curriculums with a specific sector orientation, for example for the use of drones in the humanitarian sector, our first online training initiated some weeks ago, reach a larger public and introduce the many actors in an accessible way, both in terms of reach and affordability. For example, for our first online training, we have offered over 60 people scholarships, to ensure access to all.
WeRobotics is a young organization. How do you picture the organization’s future?
We certainly are still a young organization (established in December 2015 and start of our first activities in June 2016). We plan to keep on staying young for many years to come, through continuous innovation and by adding new technologies and ways to apply them to our activities.
Our vision of success is not about the size of our organization, but about the size of our Flying Labs network and the local impact they have, on the number of opportunities we were able to create in low- income countries and learnings we are able to share, on the growth of our community. We picture a future where WeRobotics is made up of a small core-team, board of leaders and experts in their respective areas, supporting a large network of Flying Labs and diverse community to benefit from robotics technologies to solve their local challenges and impact their communities in a meaningful, respectful and sustainable way.