Aerial Intelligence meeting, Geneva Science Policy Interface

Aerial Intelligence in the Context of International Aid and Development, 6 December 2018, Uni-Dufour

On 6 December 2018 at the University of Geneva, the GSPI, together with, swissnex Boston and WeRobotics, co-organized a meeting of experts on the use of Aerial Intelligence in the context of International Aid and Development. The meeting brought together a diverse panel of more than 30 participants from International organisations, NGOs, Academia and startups.

The event was part of the WeRobotics series of experts meetings and swissnex Boston’s “Aerial Futures: the Drone Frontier” programme. Meetings addressed pivotal issues facing the safe, ethical and effective use of drones in humanitarian action, as well as a critical review of cargo drone technologies, codes of conduct and medical-use cases.

The meeting took advantage of Geneva’s unique location as a global scientific and policy hub where scientists, international organisations, policymakers and private actors are using drones to address a range of pressing global challenges. Thanks to the convening power of the GSPI, the meeting brought together a diverse panel of more than 30 participants from organisations like UNOSAT, IOM, UNHCR, ICRC, UNEP, WHO, MSF, Human Inclusion, Medair, Geneva International Center for Deming (GICHD), Academia from the University of Geneva, EPFL and ETH and startups such as Picterra.


During their introduction, Nicolas Seidler, GSPI Executive Director and Christian Simm, CEO of swissnex Boston, emphasized the importance of supporting dialogues between science, policy and practice to enhance the societal impact of technologies. The drone applications are an interesting case in point.

To kick-start the meeting, Patrick Meier set the stage with an introduction on aerial AI and its various applications in aid and development. Meier explained why aerial and satellite imagery pose a Big Data challenge. His talk was followed by 5 short lightning talks, which provided a range of perspectives and lessons learned from various stakeholders across different disciplines (see programme). The lightning talks session was concluded with videos from the finalists of the Open AI Challenge.


In the discussions that followed, participants identified important synergies and common challenges between their respective projects. For example, there was clearly a need to update analytical solutions across the board; understand how to weigh the trade-off between the accuracy of AI-driven analysis versus the speed at which AI can deliver such analysis; selecting appropriate hardware and software solutions for onsite processing versus cloud processing; build local capacity in the use of AI; follow existing data protection and data sharing protocols; ensure that drone companies do so as well. The Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct (UAVCode) was referenced multiple times during the meeting. Some of the most fruitful discussions occurred between field-based organizations and data scientists, with the former detailing their needs and the latter highlighting the latest available solutions from the field of AI, machine learning and computer vision to meet said needs.


A number of new partnership opportunities were clearly evident during these discussions. Given the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration, participants also emphasized the need to facilitate and support the creation of interdisciplinary teams to advance the challenges discussed. In addition, participants expressed a strong need for follow up meetings to address other important challenges in the use of drones; such as the use of drones for humanitarian action in conflict zones, and the need to update the UAV Code to include the latest lessons learned and best practices.

The GSPI, WeRobotics and swissnex Boston encourage participants and other organisations engaging with drones in humanitarian context to flag partnerships opportunities.

Public event

The experts meeting was followed by a public lecture by Patrick Meier on “Drones for Good: Humanitarian Action from the Sky” that was extended by a panel discussion facilitated by Christian Simm, including Prof. Giovanna di Marzo, Director of the Institute of Services Science at the University of Geneva and Ivana Nady, Assistant Settlements Officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Watch Meier’s lecture here.