New Use for Drones in the Philippines Is Saving Lives
27 August 2017 - techteam

In 2013, one of the worst tropical storms ever recorded hit the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as super typhoon Yolanda, devastated the country, killing more than 6,000 Filipinos and affecting millions of others.

Though aid organizations provided some relief, the scale of the damage was so massive that extra support was needed. SkyEye, a young company led by Impact Hub Manila member Matthew Cua, stepped in to amplify aid efforts. They used their custom-built drones to help locate survivors and survey damage to help relief organizations determine where to prioritize their efforts.

At that point, SkyEye had been in operation for less than 4 years, having started as a university project in 2009. Yet, it managed to make a significant difference in disaster relief efforts, and is now an internationally-recognized UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) company that employs 23 people, and has completed more 5,000 drone flight hours over the course of more than 100 projects.

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A custom-built SkyEye UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), also known as a drone

A service-driven mission

The Philippines is composed of over 7,000 islands, resulting in the 5th longest cumulative coastline of any country in the world. This gives it great beauty, but it also means it’s particularly vulnerable to climate-related natural disasters.

In 2009, when Matthew Cua and his team began conceptualizing the drone project while still at university, the devastating effects of the previous year’s Typhoon Frank were fresh in their minds. They were also highly aware of the quieter, but no less important, impacts of climate change such as shifting weather patterns that affect local farmers.

The team, which consisted of an interdisciplinary group of students, knew that better data collection, especially through aerial images, could help lessen these impacts.

The trouble was how to obtain the images. “Satellite images were hard and expensive to procure,” the founders explained, while drones were mainly used by the military and for photography at the time.

Thus, SkyEye was born “out of necessity,” as they knew that there was untapped potential to use drones to help “understand, measure and create interventions on climate change.”

An early success

The team truly came together as they took on their first major project: the rehabilitation of Lake Palakpakin.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 11.08.14 PM.pngAerial map of Lake Palakpakin created by SkyEye

Lake Palakpakin is a critical resource for the people who live in the town of San Pablo, Laguna. It provides not only freshwater, but also food and a source of livelihood as the center of the local fishing industry.

Distressingly, the lake was dying. Due in part to being quite shallow, “uncontrolled human and aquaculture activities severely and negatively impacted the ecosystem of the lake, causing livelihood-threatening fishkills,” as the SkyEye team explained.

In order to better understand what was killing the lake, SkyEye used drones to take aerial images. Upon viewing their images, supplemented with data produced from ground sensors, they realized the problem. Having too many fishpens, which local fisherfolk used, meant there was not enough oxygen in the lake to keep it functioning properly.

They shared the images and data with the local fisherfolk who, “upon seeing the undeniable dying state of the lake through high resolution drone imagery… decided themselves to manage and eliminate fishpens in order to save the ecosystem.”

The democratization of data

When the SkyEye team gave the information and images they collected at Lake Palakpakin to the local residents, they realized how sharing data could be a powerful equalizer. Though they originally intended to focus on an environmental mission, the social component began to take on a bigger role.

As Matthew recently explained, “drones in my experience have been one of the most innovative, one of the most accessible tools so far in democratizing the use, collection and dissemination of information.”

Along these lines, one of SkyEye’s big dreams is to help produce land titles for the entire country. Currently, between one third and one half of all land in the country is untitled, which has big implications.

In the Philippines, like in many other countries, there are vast disparities in wealth, with a large portion of the population running small farms to survive. Many of these families actually own their land, which is a valuable asset, but they don’t have a land title. Without that title, if they find themselves in need of a loan—whether to increase their crop, because of a family emergency, or to send their children to school, they cannot use the land as collateral to secure good loan rates. Instead, they must often turn to loan sharks with high interest rates that can push them into long-term debt.

It turns out that the biggest barrier to land titles is the cost of land surveying. SkyEye was certain that surveying could be done with the help of drones—but it had never been done before.

First, they had to prove to the local government that drones were a valid surveying tool.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 11.15.00 PM.pngSkyEye assists landowners in determining property boundaries so they may obtain land titles

They engaged in a study in the town of Cordova, and over the course of just two weeks were able to help 27 families map out their land, divided among 7 lots. “By giving them a high-resolution aerial map… the families were able to identify their houses, pinpoint lot boundaries and decide among themselves how to properly delineate and subdivide their property.”

Since the pilot project, SkyEye has begun another, larger land titling project that will help more than 50 families in the town of Caticlan gain legal ownership over their land. Once they have the land title, explained Matthew, SkyEye hopes it will enable them to “enter the formal economy and….pull themselves out of poverty.”

Their long-term goal? To help landowners throughout the entire country access land titles.

Custom products for unique needs

One of the ways in which SkyEye has managed to keep their work affordable—and therefore accessible—is by creating their own specialized drones. This costs less than purchasing them from other producers, and also means they can be built to perform well in the humid, hot environment of the Philippines.

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SkyEye offers more than just affordable drone images, though. It was important to the socially-minded startup that their products and services were also accessible to customers, even if they don’t have a technical background.

To meet this goal, they developed software that runs an online system where clients can access SkyEye’s images and data. Fittingly, the system is called VEDA, or Very Easy Data Access, and it is designed to help customer quickly and easily use the data to make better decisions. No technical backround, or even a computer, is required. Customers can access it simply by using their smartphone or other device.

This ease of access is particularly vital for urgent relief efforts, such as the aforementioned super typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Sharing drone images with aid organizations provided “an overview of the damages wrought by the typhoon to identify where aid was needed.” This saved precious time as thousands waited for help.  

Now, SkyEye is a member of the Community of Practice (CoP), coordinated by the United Nations. This means they are prepared to assist in the event of an earthquake, tsunami, or other disaster. They are also engaged in preventative work, such as identifying evacuation routes, doing flood control analysis to prevent homes and land from being destroyed, and pinpointing earthquake fault lines.

A foundation of community support

Though SkyEye collaborates with many NGOs, they decided to register as a business, in order to keep their operations sustainable. “You can say we are like a social enterprise,” shared Matthew, since although they are for-profit, they are guided by strong morals.

Matthew attributes Impact Hub Manila for being an early believer in their business, and encouraging others to believe in them as well: “When Impact Hub recognized us, people started to think better of us and respect us.” Impact Hub Manila was also a source of mentors, who guided SkyEye to “properly scale, slowly but surely.”

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Matthew Cua

SkyEye’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, they won “Startup of the Year” in the Rice Bowl Startup Awards, were finalists in PLDT (a Filipino telecommunications company) #BeTheBoss Awards, and have frequent public speaking requests. They were also the winners of the Impact Hub Mobility Challenge, which awarded them over $20,000 in funding, along with business incubation services.

Flying toward the horizon

Matthew Cua and the team at SkyEye are just getting started.

They’ve shown true ingenuity by creating not only innovative new drones, and software to analyze and share valuable data, but also finding new, valuable uses for their services.

Perhaps most importantly, they’ve democratized their services, consciously making their services and data accessible to everyday Filipinos who need their services the most.

As Matthew put it, “I can only hope that as the years go by…this technology would be further pushed to its limits and be made more accessible to everyone.”

The disaster relief, land surveying, data collection, and other services that SkyEye offers via its custom drones and software contribute to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 

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To learn more about SkyEye, visit