UNICEF Innovation Fund Graduate: ASR

ASR: Leveraging remote sensing drone data to improve disaster relief and response and economic planning

Moses Gichanga
Elizabeth Atir, 28, a mother five children, arrives home from Lodwar District Hospital
13 June 2019

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see portfolio member, Autonomous Systems Research, or ASR, graduate. They’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better, strengthening their business model, and gearing up to take their solution to market. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open source community.

Reflections from the ASR team

A year has passed since the commencement of the investment with UNICEF Innovation Fund. We set out to develop tools and techniques based on drone technology to facilitate the delivery of high-resolution data and deliver it to the target market easily.

It all started when we used drones to collect data at various National Parks in Kenya. We realized the potential for remote sensing, and the value of providing data related services, especially in key areas of our national economy including agriculture, conservation, and healthcare.

Relying on Open Source

We rely on open source; these systems are mature, peer-reviewed and have proven dependable.

We have identified sets of tools we can depend on and have leveraged the most stable versions and developed our systems based on them.

Specifically, we have switched to Open Drone Map for our photogrammetry solutions. It is easy to configure and use, and the bulk of the modules we use are documented. We have forked it on GitHub to include some features we feel useful to us, and this development will continue.

ASR drone test flights

In addition, during our test flights, we've seen children come out to see us fly and saw the opportunity to also upskill them on this technology. We have started offering them classes on what we do and why we do it as a way to encourage them in their studies.

Child carrying ASR drone

The Potential We See for ASR

Africa consists of arid and semi-arid land, and precision agriculture is key to ensuring ample food for its population. By leveraging frontier technology such as remote sensing we can ensure that food security is achieved.

Remote sensing is a force multiplier in that we can gather analytics remotely using 1 drone to cover 1000 acres, otherwise difficult to do on foot and prohibitively expensive.

Our Solution Evolution

We started by experimenting, conducting, and eventually understanding how to take aerial photos. We knew we could build drones but we needed a way to swap multiple sensors on one mission, prompting our team to develop a detachable way to change sensors.

Adaptable Payload Bay
Adaptable Payload Bay

Then, later on, we evolved a streamlined platform able to accommodate the detachable payload bay and that was easy to build.


During our prototyping and testing period, we faced several challenges. Our first assumption debunked was that our drones could accommodate all sensor types, especially bulky sizes.  

Second, some sensors are problematic to host in the detachable bay… like fitting a square peg in a round hole. So we opted to adopt a detachable bay, in the case that the sensors did not fit we could easily attach a bigger detachable bay.

Another assumption we made was that conducting remote sensing missions would be easy. It is not, especially because of the paperwork involved. Prior to a mission, there are a number of applications that must be done, meanwhile, the crops are growing and they may reach a point where you don’t get the data needed at a certain plant phase. So planning needs to be done in advance, but even so, organizations may delay the authorization based on their internal mechanisms.

The Future

We are seeking to establish collaborations and/or a partnership with FAO and/or WFP. This would enable us to gather more data nationally and, possibly, regionally. We have some areas we’ve identified that would benefit from persistent monitoring including understanding harvested yields, number of crops per acre of land, and soil and atmospheric conditions affecting the area under cultivation.

We are also seeking to establish ties with government agencies in agriculture, conservation, and law enforcement, because it is so much easier working with them for authorization. Government is the biggest consumer of resources, and the data we generate would go a long way for the attainment of key Development Goals.

Overall, we want to establish a national repository of remote sense data to gather statistics in several areas such as crop patterns, the water levels in reservoirs, forest canopy cover, forest level of deforestation, length of trees, and species, among many other metrics. Over time, this data will form patterns and forecasts to guide proactive decision-making.

What's Next?

We have identified various use-cases we would like to explore medical deliveries and cargo delivery over the next few months. We have embarked on discussing partnering with officials on forestry management, and look forward to conducting aerial mission, as the deliberation is at an advanced stage.

We are going back to the Humanitarian Drone Corridor at Kasungu, Malawi to conduct tests for forestry and VTOL (Vertical take-off and Landing) tests for medical supplies, and conduct trials in medical supply delivery.

Our deepest gratitude goes to UNICEF and the UNICEF Innovation Fund team!