Using drones for social sector research

  • Blog Post Date 19 June, 2017
  • Notes from the Field
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While drones have historically been used in military operations, their application for peaceful purposes has risen steeply in recent years. In this note, representatives from Outline India - a research and development consultancy firm - discuss their efforts to integrate drones in social sector research to make data analysis more evidence-based, visualise policy performance, and produce actionable research materials to aid public policy making and monitoring.

Historically, and in popular perception, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, have been understood to be used by military for operations that are too risky to be handled manually, as well as for 24-hour surveillance. However, with its unique ability for acquisition, integration, and analysis of geographically referenced spatial information, this technology has, in recent times, been recognised as an effective tool for planning, management, and decision-making, locally and globally.

Non-military applications of drones

In the past few years, drones applications for peaceful purposes have risen steeply, with a wide range of industries employing and integrating drones in their workflow. For example, drones have been successfully used for aerial surveillance of crops, precision agriculture, and targeted pesticide spraying. In Madagascar, drones are being used to deliver medical supplies and equipment to remote areas. However, the potential of drone applications in the social sector and public policy, where they can be used more widely through evidence-driven interventions, remains largely unexplored.

Nevertheless, inroads have been made into various sectors in both the public and private domain in India. For instance: RMSI carried out a unique, comprehensive study based on a Geographic Information System (GIS)1 for the entire civil fire and emergency services to develop a roadmap for revamping these services in the country; ideaForge is using drones to provide end-to-end services for flood inundation modelling in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Skylark Drones is using drones to manage and oversee the road networks and repair projects taking place across Dakshina Kannada district, Karnataka; AIRPIX is using drones in establishing a system that will improve monitoring of project progress for railways; Keystone Foundation is using GIS to gather and analyse a library of information and build action plans to preserve water resources and biodiversity in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve; and the Government of Haryana is using drones to create digital maps for land records (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Gateway Media Private Limited, 2013).

Drones can also provide accurate, detailed maps of key resources present in a village such as civic infrastructure; assist in identifying the relationship between water supply, drainage and topography; and show the demographic distribution which can help in identifying how social groups are segregated and distributed within a region; and so on. Such information can then be integrated with survey and/or interview data collected in the field for building an understanding of existing assets and needs, evaluation of interventions, and analysis of the drivers of inequalities.

Potential benefits of using drone technology in rural India

In most of rural India, Google maps are available with little or no detail; there is no internet; and sometimes no phone connectivity either. The satellite images of such rural locations even if available are not updated regularly, nor do they reflect ground realities. In such a scenario, georeferenced aerial and 3D maps created with the help of drones offer a technologically advanced solution in the social science research and public policy space. GIS information can accord visibility to invisible spaces and aid in expediting evidence-based public policy making. Inaccessible geographies which remain beyond the purview of door-to-door enumeration can now be gauged, mapped, and produced on visual platforms to understand resource-oriented gaps.

Drones can produce aerial maps, georeferenced orthophotos, 3D models and KMZ files which can be accessed on Google Earth, thus feeding into the GIS technology and allowing different types of information to be overlaid on a single map. A brief explanation of the technical support possible using drones is as follows:

  • KMZ files: These files are compatible with Google Earth. They are georeferenced (with longitude, latitude, and altitude specifications) and can be overlaid on existing satellite data on Google Earth and other open-access maps.
  • 3D models: These files are compatible with PDF (Portable Document Format) and AGI (Asterisk Gateway Interface). They can be used to measure true distances, volumes and heights of surface objects, but require a heavy hardware configuration, which is a limitation for everyday use of such models.
  • Orthophotos and contour maps: These are visual representations of the aerial map, which if georeferenced, can be opened using Google Earth and other similar applications. If they are not georeferenced, they can simply be accessed using any image viewer.
  • Contour maps as well as KMZ files with altitude component can help to measure topography and elevation profile of the area so mapped.

A successful pilot in Haryana by Outline India

At Outline India, we seek to integrate drones in social sector research to make data analysis more evidence-based, visualise policy performance, and produce actionable research materials to aid public policy making and monitoring.

To explore the potential of geospatial data and the use of geospatial technology in social research, a successful pilot study was undertaken at Bhora Khurd, a village situated in Manesar tehsil2 of Haryana. We worked in partnership with local authorities and the state government in order to propel on-ground work through effective policy measures. The intention was to understand the technical feasibility and scalability, and gauge challenges that may arise in the process. While drones were used to produce detailed images along with elevation profile of the geographical space, a household-level survey was conducted, along with collection of georeferenced granular-level information on the ground.

Figure 1. Describing different elevation profiles, and segregation of various communities in a village

The study helped establish linkages between spatial distribution, topography, and access to basic infrastructural resources. Absence of proper drainage system and failure of existing drainage lines due to uneven topography of the village area emerged as one of the most pressing problems.

Further, the village was segregated along caste lines with households from lower castes being clustered in an area with lower elevation. Access to some infrastructural services and community resources have also tended to vary along the lines of social groups. Aerial maps and elevation profiles of specific points where drainage water tends to get accumulated, complemented by household-level granular data, served as a useful tool for local authorities in developing a systematic, evidence-based drainage plan and the Gram Panchayat Development Plan, and in identifying and visualising priority areas for development.

Figure 2. Snapshot of Bhora Khurd depicting resolution and accuracy difference between Google map and UAV-aerial map

Figure 3. Infrastructure and community resources plotted on orthophotomap

Challenges in scale-up

However, challenges remains in scaling the use of drone technology owing to the ethical considerations and the legalities centred on gathering geospatial data, along with the cost involved in flying drones. For instance, as per the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) Draft Guidelines3, on drones, a company will have to seek appropriate permissions from local authorities (police station, local administrator, etc., as applicable) since UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) /UAV operations below 200 ft. AGL (above ground level) in uncontrolled airspace and clear of notified, restricted, temporarily segregated and temporarily reserved areas, are exempt from obtaining an UAOP(Unmanned Aircraft operator Permit) registration in order to conduct operations. If the project requires drones to fly above 200 feet AGL, then permissions from DGCA need to be sought, and drones needs to be registered with a Unique Identification Number before the project can begin - these processes are not easy.


  1. A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. GIS can show many different kinds of data on one map. This enables people to more easily see, analyse, and understand patterns and relationships.
  2. Tehsil is a district administration or revenue subdivision in India.
  3. These are revised guidelines which came in post a blanket ban on the use of UAVs by DGCA in 2014.
  4. UAS is the entire package needed to operate the system, which includes the UAV itself, ground control system, camera, GPS (Global Positioning System), software, skills, and tools required for maintenance.
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