A drone's eye view: UAV applications for a resilient Seychelles
In the Seychelles, life straddles the coastline. Driving along the country’s main roads, which run parallel to the turquoise outline of Mahé Island, it is impossible not to recognize this. Fishermen take to the sandy sidewalks with their morning hauls, children flood crosswalks to access their seaside schoolyards, and people queue patiently for public transport into the bustling capital, Victoria, which stands only one meter above sea level.
This might be characteristic of any island state, dependent upon the sea for sustenance, trade, and movement. What makes the Seychelles especially unique is just how widely admired its shores are. Every year, a tourist base over triple the size of the country’s population finds solace somewhere upon this 492 km stretch of blue. “That’s 6,000 to 8,000 tourists per week,” explains Philomena Hollanda, a risk manager for the Seychelles’ Ministry of Tourism. “You won’t find a Seychellois who isn’t connected to tourism in some way.”
The realities of climate change, sea level rise, and coral reef degradation, however, are beginning to pose potential threats to this coastal oasis, which has citizens and government set on implementing coastal resilience measures.
Effective management of these coastal risks, first and foremost, requires clear identification of the location of infrastructure, ecosystems, and erosion impact – and collecting this data is a complex, time-consuming, and costly task for any small country. The last aerial imagery exercise conducted for the Seychelles, a collection of 115 islands (eight of which are permanently inhabited) that span over an exclusive economic zone of 1,374,000 km2, was in 2011. And although this geospatial information is of sufficient quality, it represents an outdated image of the quickly eroding coastal zones. Satellite imagery is, at times, employed to compensate, but, for an island state with excessive cloud cover, this rarely allows for a high standard of analysis.
"We don’t always need to do things the old, conventional way. We have to innovate."
Paul Labaleine, Director General for the Department of Risk and Disaster Management (DRDM) in the Seychelles, stresses that the government is motivated to address this gap through innovation: “In the Seychelles, we have had to use what is available to us. From a perspective of development, risk management, reduction, and preparedness, we believe drones will be the answer to our prayers.”
“We must think outside the box”
With the support of the Global Facility for Disaster Risk and Recovery (GFDRR), and inspired by the experience of Zanzibar, a neighboring island state with similar challenges, the Seychelles is now embracing drones as a tool to collect low-cost, highly accurate aerial imagery for resilient development.
In Zanzibar, drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), were introduced in 2016 through the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative (ZMI), a collaboration between the World Bank and the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar. The data collected through this project has already been used to create a new base map for the islands, further supporting environmental monitoring and disaster risk reduction. By partnering with the State University of Zanzibar, ZMI has additionally trained hundreds of students and improved local capacity within the geospatial realm, prompting major investment in the development of a regional drone industry.
With similar goals in mind, the DRDM recently invited key members and partners of the ZMI team to lead a south-south knowledge exchange on the topic of drones for development. Over the course of one week, these trainers – coming from the World Bank, Tanzania Flying Labs (part of a global network connected to WeRobotics, a US-based non-profit), and Drone Adventures (a Swiss non-profit working with Sensefly) – taught representatives from 34 different Seychellois government and NGO agencies how to plan, fly, and process data for a drone flight. Through Seychelles-specific case studies, participants were further introduced to the many applications of the imagery collected.
Participants from the training conceptualized several different scenarios that can and will potentially be aided by the introduction of drones – from change detection to disease surveillance to topographical surveys. Jastin Bibi, a disease surveyor and responder working for the Ministry of Health in the Seychelles, expressed the attendees’ shared excitement for the potential of drones within their country post-training. “It is time to explore more and see how we can employ them in all sectors. We need to think outside the box. We don’t always need to do things the old, conventional way. We have to innovate.”
Simultaneous to the workshop, drones were already being employed in such a way, as a selection of the trainers conducted a mapping pilot for the country. The team spent five days surveying vulnerable coastal areas on the islands of Mahé and La Digue, an effort that was guided by and will be used to inform initiatives led by government to mitigate disaster risk. The exercise successfully captured data for 11 critical sites on Mahé and 70 percent of La Digue – covering 30 km2 of the Seychelles’ coastal area.
A comprehensive intervention
This training and mapping exercise is by no means an isolated intervention in the Seychelles. It is part of a broader OpenDRI project that began in 2014. Brenden Jongman, project leader from the World Bank explains, “It is all part of a broader collaboration aimed at building awareness of drone technologies across [the] Seychelles community, improving the technical operating capacity of government and NGO actors, and supporting the creation and sharing of geospatial data in the country.” The work is being led by DRDM under the Designated Minister’s Office of the Seychelles, the World Bank, and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), and it is being strengthened by an increasingly active geospatial community in the Seychelles.
On the islands, a Geospatial Working Group is now convening all institutions that deal with geospatial information to encourage standardization and open access to all data. Using the data to be collected with drones, these institutions will be working on an extended community/collaborative mapping project, part of GFDRR’s Open Cities Africa Initiative. Imagery will enable participating groups to identify infrastructure and assets of interest for tourists and for Seychellois citizens with the goal of improving resilience to climate risk.
“I believe we’re on the right track. The coordination is there. The will is there. But we need to improve as we go along,” Labaleine says, further urging that “immediate and innovative measures, beginning with drones, are paramount to the preservation of our coastlines – for adoring tourists and Seychellois alike.”