Guest Post - Drones For Humanitarian Missions

Guest Post - Drones For Humanitarian Missions

Nicholas Mellor, founder of The mCubed Initiative, has written a guest blog detailing his work with drones in Mali & what's next for UAVs in humanitarian work.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2021

7 minute read

Nicholas Mellor, heliguy™ customer and founder of The mCubed Initiative which provides community-based mapping, modelling and monitoring of endangered heritage sites, has provided us with a guest blog outlining the work that he has been carrying out in Mali. The scanning and preservation of landmarks and historical sites have become critical issues as the continued conflict in the Middle East leads to ancient structures of great significance being destroyed by extremists. As part of our continued look at drones as assets in commercial and practical settings, this guest blog is a collaborative effort between heliguy™ and the mCubed Initiative and focuses on the humanitarian benefits of drones as well as what challenges still remain and what the future holds for this technology. This post also appeared on the ELRHA (Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance) site.



NM: "We successfully created a prototype training course for citizen heritage activists demonstrating how using aerial imaging they could map and model endangered heritage sites. We are then able to use the resulting models for conservation records, advocacy and education. mCubed has been invited to present our work at an international summit meeting supported by UNESCO, ICCROM and Incontro Di Civilta, on the protection of heritage in areas of conflict. We had a meeting with the Prime Minister which was followed by an international declaration to be more proactive in using documenting endangered heritage. Both the Prime Minister and President of Italy have taken a personal interest and the declaration was taken to the G7 meeting later that month.

We particularly benefitted from support from the UK Government - specifically the British Embassy in Bamako. There was recognition that what we had done was pioneering in the engagement with local citizens, the agile approach needed for working in remote or insecure areas and in the special and temporal resolution of the data collected. We are now seeking to create a community to work together to share best practice in conservation, advocacy and education around the world and because of this, we have been invited to share these insights at a meeting of heritage experts from eight countries in East Africa next month."


The Current Drone Ecosystem

The use of aerial-based systems involving UAVs or drones in a country where there is not a precedent can require extensive consultation. We are at the very beginning of a new era that brings together aviation, robotics and cloud-based applications, creating new challenges and opportunities. The UK is leading a consultation to explore the broader socioeconomic benefits of drones in the UK – but these opportunities may be even greater internationally, opening up new service opportunities for UK organisations mCubed recently took their mapping mission to Mali The UK government has recognised the potential of this field with the launch of a consultation in December 2016 to look at the benefits UAVs can bring, with the aim to:
  • Create the conditions for the cutting edge commercial use of drones
  • Create high-value jobs
  • Encourage the development of drone-based services that could boost the economy
  • Address safety, security and privacy challenges and concerns that drones present
The government’s enthusiasm highlights its potential elsewhere, for example in Mali, where if the use of drones is combined with some local capacity building, the benefits of the aerial based systems could extend the short-term benefits from a humanitarian perspective to longer term economic benefits and crucially creating jobs in the digital economy.

Drones & Humanitarian Work

At The mCubed Initiative we have been looking at how such systems can be safely and responsibly used to support efforts by communities to safeguard and raise awareness and understanding of their heritage assets, within their country and in the wider world – see a short video:

Heritage stewardship is an international priority, with the awareness that innovation and better tools are needed. But how do countries protect themselves against misuse or accidents? How best can we introduce the benefits of such systems in ways that mitigate the concerns about misuse or accidents? Safe and effective use of drones requires good guidelines, regulation and expert training for operators. In looking at these issues, there is a lot we can learn from other sectors where UAV usage has become much more mainstream. This blog looks at four key challenges facing drones in the humanitarian sector and features comments from UK-based UAV specialists, Heliguy. Uniquely placed to have insights in this field, heliguy™ offers a number of drone training courses on behalf of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as an approved National Qualified Entity. We have highlighted four major issues to be addressed including technology, connectivity, trust and regulations.

Technological Compatibility

The complexity of systems integration means that tests need to be carried out to look at issues of compatibility and reliability. There is a trade-off in costs here between IOS and Android; Open source code and proprietary software. Setting up the Phantom 4 Pro for a demonstration In our mission critical operations, it has often proven better to go for the tested and supported products even if they are not the cheapest option.

Connectivity and Bandwidth

The trend towards apps and web-based services for image processing is placing a premium on internet access. In many of the places with weak infrastructures, connectivity is limited. This creates a constraint on communications as well as the use of these services. Cloud-based providers of image analytics, such as DroneDeploy are increasingly developing their applications so they can be used offline. At the same time connectivity though 3G+ systems is improving all the time as well. Calibrating the Phantom 4 Pro in the field Improving connectivity through methods such as airborne Wi-Fi hotspots would allow for a more streamlined interplay between unmanned aircraft and existing solutions. The ability to use these programmes anywhere would definitively widen their scope of use.

Mistrust of Drones

In some of the countries where we hope to use drones for heritage stewardship, drone use is dominated by the military as opposed to civil applications, and there are examples of consumer drones being weaponised. To address this issue we working collaboratively with a local team, consulting all the affected government agencies and using small drones with a very limited range. Increasing trust through effective training Many of these concerns are addressed in existing regulations which govern the safe usage of UAVs, however, we believe the best way to combat the mistrust of drones is to show how useful they are, for exampling creating a 3D model of a structure – capturing details that would be inaccessible by conventional methods – which aids in conservation or reconstruction.

Regulations & Guidelines

With a large and growing drone based industry as well as highly regulated (and congested) air space, the training standards set by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are some of the most demanding in the world. The UK also supports one of the safest aviation industries, period. Both the UK CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have ongoing consultations on future regulations on the use of drones and aim to feed into International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) policy. Teaching locals to use drones for mapping purposes Regulations and guidance will continue to evolve. It must be an operator’s responsibility to stay up to date with the rapid shifts in regulation that are occurring throughout the nascent market of drone services. If you follow the above advice, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to make a success of a UAV project whether for humanitarian purposes or an industrial venture. Training needs to be adapted to introduce drone operations to people keen to explore the potential of this technology for their own needs – in this case; mapping, modelling and monitoring endangered heritage sites in Mali.


We have sought to foster a collaborative approach bringing in partners from academia and industry to gain insights of use case examples from other sectors and other regions of the world. Test flights under the guidance of professionals This has involved assessing the current CAA approved training programmes, exploring use cases in the field of aerial archaeology, practical test flights both in the UK and internationally, and reaching out for appropriate guidance within Mali where the main field work has been focused, as well as pioneering a training format to enable local people to experience learning to fly drones themselves.


Keep checking back to Heliguy's Insider Blog for more on how drones are being used in a range of sectors, the current state of regulations and, of course, the latest news from the industry.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

If you have a question or require urgent assistance, please contact us to ensure your query is dealt with quickly.

Please note, this hidden field is to prevent bot submissions and entering data will result in your comment being discarded without moderation.