Since 2017 we have been prototyping a toolkit for open science with drones, to be equally accessible to marginal communities, activists or researchers, and useful for studies or measurements for which this technology is already used but is dominated by closed source tools. This project builds upon available open source hardware and software, which is integrated in an open, iterative, and collaborative process. Vuela has received funding from Knowledge-Culture-Ecologies/NUMIES, Mozilla Science, PROCISUR, and Shuttleworth Foundation.
We believe people with no previous technical experience can and should work side by side, and as equals, with those with official training or experience. This type of collaboration has the power of furthering the goals of democratizing science and technology, but also of improving the relevance, effectiveness, and impact of open technologies in society.
The members of our ‘crew’ are hobbyists, civil society activists, researchers, neighbours, students, developers, and in our workshops we have spoken Spanish, Haitian Créole, English, French and Portuguese. We encourage every type of person to participate, no matter how he/she identifies herself or how others perceive her. We welcome everyone as long as they interact constructively with our community and adhere to the code of conduct.
Having access to scientific tools is not at all an easy endeavour, less so for groups such as environmental activists or scientists from institutions with a lack of budget. Their participation in science gets compromised when the tools they need to gather data or conduct measurements have been designed for other contexts, are too expensive, and/or aren’t available in their places. Among other things, this hampers scientific action at the local level. Local action is relevant for tackling problems that are relevant in specific contexts and that the global science agenda might not prioritize or might just ignore.
Vuela wants to develop scientific tools that can be useful for groups or communities that tackle local and locally-defined problems, and therefore promote their participation in science. Online tools and global communities are helping make open technologies more accessible, for those who are part of traditional ‘knowledge institutions’, like universities and research institutes, but also for those who are outside them. However, there are still significant barriers and with Vuela we have wanted to tackle some of them.
One of the macro problems we have observed is the emphasis on the development of new scientific tools (and on their ‘inventors’) and not on the adaptation of already existing instruments, which replicates the supplier and user/customer model of commercial closed source hardware. Open source definitions refer to the ability to replicate, modify, adapt, and redistribute, but these steps are usually taken for granted and are not particularly encouraged or studied. We want to understand what is needed for groups to be able to replicate, modify and redistribute open hardware. And if we identify barriers, try to tackle them. We believe open science need a different type of user or scientific tools, one that is more a collaborator that can actually help overcome hurdles.
So, one of the main barriers we have observed in these processes is language. English is the dominant language among global open technology communities, limiting access in Latin America, where only a minority, often the most privileged, learns English. This is why Vuela’s documentation will be in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, French and English. Language diversity in Latin America is huge (420 spoken languages), so we are conscious our contribution is still tiny.
There are also cultural barriers. Scientific exchanges tend to happen between academic actors, and the knowledge that’s considered valuable and relevant is that produced inside academia. It is unusual to see academic scientists work side by side with, for example, civil society groups experiencing a particular problem, despite both groups tackling or studying that very same problem. To reconsider who can and should do science also involves re-think what it means to do science, where can science be produced and what knowledges should be considered scientific. The movement for decolonizing knowledge isn’t unconnected to open science hardware.
Link to a reading list about decolonization.
Drones can be a powerful tool for research in disciplines such as agriculture and environmental sciences, allowing the capture of aerial imaging with great flexibility. But open science requires open instruments and materials, and drones should not be an exception. With our ‘why’ in mind, instead of developing a tool from scratch, we started this project by replicating, testing, and identifying potential improvements for an already available open source drone called ‘Flone’ (flone.cc), in a series of open, collaborative workshops that we started in 2017.
During our workshops, we identified a number of possible improvements, modifications, and additions to the original design of the ‘Flone’. These changes were needed for using the drone for research purposes. For a ‘typical’ use in research, a drone needs to be able to be reliably positioned over the studied terrain and capture high-quality images that can be later processed to get a high quality image or map of the surveyed area. These improvements were the subject of the project activities during 2018.
Throughout this process the drone ended up being quite different to the original Flone. We called it OVLI, or Objeto Volador Libre, which means free flying object in Spanish. We also worked on identifying other open software and hardware tools, to include in the ‘toolbox’.
We have wanted to work on Vuela through a collaborative and iterative process.
The toolkit has been built with diverse people: secondary school students, traditional scientists affiliated to academic institutions, journalists, local community members with no formal academic or technology background, self taught software developers, scientists working on agriculture, kids, adults, people with and without experience making or using drones. Initially, and ideally, as part of our group we wanted to have people who were already tackling local problems for which drones could be useful. So far, only the agricultural researchers arrived at the workshops with specific needs for which the dron could be useful.
Developing this drone prototype took the work of more than 100 people between June 2017 and January 2019, in more than 30 local and in-person workshops, as well as permanent online collaboration using tools like GitHub. We are producing the documentation in different languages (in English, Spanish and Haitian Créole), and in a format that is easy to modify and translate. Between August 2018 and January 2019 we worked on further improving this prototype and then put it to the test for agricultural research in 5 South American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
For more details about how the project started, read these stories:
Revista Liinc (in Spanish)
Here some photos and videos:
You can connect with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
This project adheres to a code of conduct. By participating, you are expected to uphold this code. Please report unacceptable behavior to email@example.com.