Drones help monitor illegal logging and gold mining in Guyana (Credit digital-democracy.org)

The Wapichan or Wapishana tribe of Guyana is an isolated community of fewer than 6,000 people that live on the edge of the rainforest around South America's Rupununi Savannah, one of the world's largest open ranges of savannah lands. Located in Guyana between the Rupununi River and the Brazilian border, the 5,000 square mile area of pristine grasslands, swamplands, and rain-forested mountains has been the source of food and water for the tribe for centuries. Unfortunately, their means of subsistence is now being threatened by illegal logging and gold mining activities.

Though the tribe members report any illicit activity they stumble upon to officials, it is hard to catch most of the culprits given the size of the land. But thanks to some remote-controlled drones and smart mapping software, that may soon be a thing of the past.

Experts from Digital Democracy taught the Wapishana tribe to build the drones (Credit: digital-democracy.org)

The ingenious project is the brainchild of Digital Democracy, a California-based non-profit whose mission is to assist marginalized communities around the world use technology to defend their rights. But instead of bringing in sophisticated drones that would be rendered useless if they crashed or broke down, the organization decided to teach the locals how to build, operate, and repair, the devices.

In October 2014, Digital Democracy's Gregor Maclennan made his way to Guyana carrying with him a bag of foam, wires, glues, and a few tools. Using a leaf-roofed hut as his lab, Maclennan taught the five men and one woman that had been selected from villages throughout the Wapishana territory to build the drones from scratch. The team did everything, from ironing laminate, to strengthening the wires and even soldering a live video transmission system. Maclennan says they were not only quick to master the process but also able to improvise if things didn't work out as planned. When the motor mount broke, the team members came up with the creative idea of using an old beer crate to build a replacement.

The drones have allowed the tribe to create a 3D map of their territory (Credit: digital-democracy.org)

The team built two drones. The first one which has no autopilot is more like a remote-controlled airplane and was used to teach the people how to fly and land. This was no easy task given that the drones are not quadrocopters but fixed-wing aircraft and are therefore much more difficult to control. Maclennan says Digital Democracy decided on the fixed-wing versions because they have a bigger flying range and are easier to repair than quadrocopters.

Though the project is still in the early stages, the Wapishanas have already managed to create a 3D map of the area around one of the villages. In order to do so, the team took turns in flying the second drone, which has an autopilot device and is equipped with a GoPro camera over the target region, several times. They then used specialized software to transform the over 500 images captured, into a map.

Maclennan plans to publish the technical details of the project so that organizations and communities around the world can establish similar watchdog mechanisms. What's interesting is that such initiatives will not only help the affected communities but also protect the few pristine regions that remain on the planet.

Resources: takeapart.com, digital-democrcy.org

We Built a Drone from Digital Democracy on Vimeo.