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Using Drones for Good—Parrot Provides Drones, Software, and Support to Human Rights Watch

BY Zacc Dukowitz
6 May 2020

French drone company Parrot has committed itself to supporting the mission of Human Rights Watch (HRW) by providing drones, software, and technical help in its investigations into human rights abuses throughout the world.

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Photo credit: Human Rights Watch

Recently, Parrot drones have been used by HRW in its investigation of atrocities committed by ISIS in northern Syria.

Human Rights Watch is doing incredibly important work around the world. We are honored to push the boundaries of how our technologies can be applied to help them in their missions.

– Henri Seydoux, Chairman and CEO of Parrot

To help with the investigation in Syria, Parrot donated its ANAFI drones, as well as software for 3D modeling and close technical support to help HRW use the tools provided.

[Related reading: 14 Inspiring Examples of Drones Doing Good Around the Globe]

About Human Rights Watch’s Syria Project

Between 2013 and 2019, ISIS abducted thousands of people in northern Syria. Many of them remain unaccounted for to this day.

HRW is trying to locate their remains and document the crimes committed, both to provide information to the families of those murdered and to prove that war crimes were committed.

The al-Hota Gorge Investigation

The specific HRW investigation that Parrot supported began in 2017, in northern Syria.

The focus of its investigation was on the al-Hota gorge, the suspected site of a mass grave used by ISIS.

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An aerial shot of the al-Hota gorge (Photo credit: Human Rights Watch)

HRW started this investigation after being made aware of a disturbing video showing a group of seven masked ISIS fighters tossing the bodies of two dead men into a gorge.

[Read the full Human Rights Watch report—Into the Abyss: The al-Hota Mass Grave in Northern Syria]

The video was obtained by a worker at a computer repair shop in Tal Abyad, Syria. When a known ISIS member left his computer there for repairs, the shop worker secretly copied the video off of it and shared it with a Syrian News website, which subsequently posted it on June 26, 2014.

When HRW found out about the video, it began trying to find the location of the gorge. Using information gathered from satellite imagery, geological maps, and old, obscure videos on YouTube, and chasing down leads in Syria, Turkey, and France, the HRW team discovered that the location in the video was the al-Hota gorge, located about 50 miles north of Raqqa.

It wasn’t until late 2017, when ISIS was pushed out of the area, that HRW was able to start investigating there.

HRW’s initial investigation started with interviews, a visual inspection of the gorge, and a review of satellite imagery of the site.

But the bottom of the gorge turned out to be inaccessible to HRW workers, and the satellite imagery didn’t provide the level of detail needed for its investigation.

Determined to get proof of what ISIS had done there, the team returned a year later equipped with Parrot drones. Using Parrot’s drones, the HRW team was able to capture aerial footage of the bottom of the gorge, providing clear evidence that bodies had been dumped there.

In addition to finding bodies, the visual data obtained by Parrot’s ANAFI drones helped HRW workers create a 3D topographical map of the area. This map, created using Pix4D Mapper, uncovered even more places in the gorge where bodies might be located.

3D animation of al-Hota gorge, Syria

In its flights with the ANAFI, the HRW team discovered a chilling fact: there were fresh bodies at the bottom of the gorge. This meant that ISIS was still operating in the region, even after supposedly being routed and pushed out in 2017.

The video below provides a brief summary of the work HRW and Parrot have been doing in the al-Hota gorge.

WARNING: The last 15 seconds of the video contain brief video footage of dead bodies found in the gorge.

ISIS Dumped Bodies in Gorge Near Raqqa

Not the First Time Human Rights Watch Used Drones

The project in northern Syria isn’t the first time HRW has used drones in its work.

In 2017, HRW used Sensefly’s eBee drone to investigate the health risks of widespread opening burning of household waste in Lebanon. This widespread burning is, according to HRW, the result of the government’s failure to manage solid waste.

Watch this video to learn more about the 2017 project in Lebanon:

Drones in the Service of Human Rights: Using Robotic Technology to Research Waste Burning in Lebanon

Do you know of other ways drones are being used for good in the world? Let us know on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum.

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