Activists and hackers join forces to search and rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. Computer-controlled model aircrafts equipped with video cameras and an app are supposed to improve the coordination of rescue missions and to detect refugees in distress at sea more quickly. Sea-Watch and the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) support the SearchWing initiative.
“If we don’t find them, they will die.” This is the painful reality for the volunteers of Sea-Watch, a charitable NGO financed by donations that operates two rescue ships in the Mediterranean. In this region, Sea-Watch has been rescuing people for two years now. Fleeing war and terror, they have to risk their lives on the way to Europe, the chance to die is 1:41.
“The operation area is huge, our sight is limited, so the small boats are hard to discover”, this is how Ruben Neugebauer of Sea-Watch describes the situation at sea. Here, the hackers of the CCC Berlin are able to provide the necessary support. “We send model aircrafts with cameras steered by computers instead of real aircrafts with human pilots”, explains ‘Steini’, a member of the Computer Club. “These are much cheaper and smaller, environment-friendly and can start right from the ship. They can even land on the ship in a net, instead of having to cover hundreds of kilometers from the nearest airfield to the operation area.“
For more than 15 years the hackers have been dealing with the dangers and benefits of autonomous, computer-controlled systems. “Rescuing human lives is one of the few meaningful operation areas of drones, that is why the hacker community is eager to help here”, Frank Rieger, one of the speakers of the CCC, comments. “It would be a mistake to leave this technology to the military or the spies.”
Drawing on the technological expertise, the tinkerers support the mission of Sea-Watch and make all technologies available to the general public – but only for humanitarian purposes. A customized utilization license impedes that the expert’s services can be used legally for commercial or even military purposes.
The aim is to get one drone ready for operation in March when first test flights are planned in the Mediterranean. Until then, some problems remain to be solved: For ‘Steini’, the low cost radio connection is still an interesting challenge – so is the automatic landing in the web of a moving ship. Furthermore, the team plans to double the reach of the drone from now 60 miles, one of many milestones to be achieved next year.
The most important task is to get the device ready to operate and to instruct the volunteers of Sea-Watch and other NGOs. Later, automatic image recognition will relieve the workload of the ground staff as far as possible. More sensors could help increase the steadiness and reliability of the operation. The modular aircraft will comprise replaceable components and be easy to handle for everyone. This would provide NGOs with similar technology already used by the army and governments. However, the latter don’t take action to rescue people, but rather develop drones to kill them.
In addition to air reconnaissance, Sea-Watch is now developing a software to improve the coordination of the many rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Here, the volunteers can count on the support of the hacker community as well: “Air reconnaissance in addition to a software that combines all data will hopefully provide us with a detailed overview of the situation in the area. That way we will be able to make efficient use of our resources and rescue more people”, one of the software developers, Nicolas Zemke, says. “We are very thankful for the support”, Joshua Krüger adds. Both developers have been aboard the Sea-Watch 2 for a rescue mission this year. “2016 was the deadliest year at the European borders – and the EU doesn’t do anything to prevent people from dying. Since governments fail to act, the civil society will have to take on that burden also in 2017. Thanks to stimulating collaborations like the SearchWing project, we’ll be more efficient in the future”, Krüger summarizes.
Please feel free to contact us, we are happy to answer your questions:
SearchWing – www.searchwing.org
– Ruben Neugebauer, email@example.com, +4915773689421
– Steini, firstname.lastname@example.org, +49 1772155043
– Benthor, email@example.com
Pictures of the Sea-Watch rescue missions are available online via: