Drones and urban planning aren’t usually used in the same sentence, but for Piotr Sasin, country director at People In Need (PIN), unmanned aerial vehicles are seen as a starting point to improving Phnom Penh’s urban poor settlements. As he tells Post Property, the key is just to convince the respective authorities.
I understand you brought the idea of drone technology to People In Need. What piqued your interest in drone technology and why do you think it could be useful in Cambodia?
People in Need has been using GIS/mapping technologies since 2012 in floods response, recovery and disaster risk reduction. We have been using high resolution satellite imagery for mapping of safe sites for flood-affected people, preparing land use and hazard maps in the rural areas, and mapping urban poor communities under threat of eviction in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, the cost of satellite imagery is very high and for some areas it is not always available or the images are not of sufficient quality.
Drones enable us to get very high resolution aerial images (even 1.5 cm resolution) very quickly (for satellite imagery we need to wait for a fraction of the cost of satellite imagery) at reasonable cost.
How would you describe the current state of urban planning in Phnom Penh and Cambodia?
We know the authorities prepared a master plan for Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, even though PIN is very active in this sector and we have working relations with the Municipality, we have never been invited for any consultations and do not know details of that plan.
From our hazard, vulnerability and capacity assessment we know that Sangkats (communes) do not have local land use plans. Plans at this scale are very important because they give a chance to properly prepare specific construction projects.
Construction in Phnom Penh, like in many other cities in developing countries is not regulated and is developer-driven, who rarely consider environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive designs.
In what ways do you believe an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could assist Cambodia with its urban planning?
A drone is just a tool for quick acquiring of aerial images at reasonable cost. It is up to the people who will get the images to use them in a right way. In many cities (e.g. Dar es Salam), drones like ours are used to prepare detailed flood risk maps and mapping of informal settlements. These maps are developed to review current land use, and prepare local upgrading and mitigation plans.
One of the very important steps in upgrading urban poor settlements in Phnom Penh – there are 250 settlements like this – is putting them on the map, which symbolically recognises their existence and engaging communities and local authorities in an open and transparent discussion about their future. These maps can be used for determining the number of households living in the settlements, assessment of access roads, identifying rubbish dump sites, flooded areas, public facilities, etc. With aerial pictures we can also develop Digital Terrain and Surface Models (DTS and DMS) which are very useful in running flood risk models and plan infrastructure development accordingly. That spatial analysis can be then used for preparing upgrading or onsite redevelopment plans.
Has the government been receptive to the idea of using drone technology? How could it be implemented?
Yes, Phnom Penh Capital Hall Urban Poor Office has been enthusiastic about using the drones to acquire aerial images of urban poor settlements. So far, we have been mapping 34 settlements in the Russey Keo district. We plan to support district authorities in using these images to prepare detailed maps and to organise the communities which should lead into integration of their priorities into local development plans. We expect mapping to be the first step in an effort to upgrade those settlements and improve living conditions as well as assess people’s land rights.
What are the challenges involved in implementing drone technology?
There are number of challenges related to this technology. First of all, local authorities don’t trust flying objects. The term drone has negative associations with spying. It takes time to explain to the authorities that it is a harmless, two-kilogram device that is only slightly bigger than a kite in fact.
Another challenge is that drone batteries have low performance. Our drone with one propeller can fly for 40 minutes. Then it needs to come back to the starting point and after the battery is changed it can go back to continue from the point it stopped. This takes a bit of time.
Drones also need some open areas to fly, which is sometimes difficult to find in urban settings. Moreover, we need trained staff to operate a drone and a minimum of two people at a time to operate it.
Finally, the initial costs for a drone of the kind we use are fairly high. One basic unit costs (including servicing, software, support, etc.) around $20,000. The unit which can be used for land surveying, with Real Time Kinetics device, is around $30,000. But if it is regularly used like in our case it pays back very quickly.
Adequate urban planning for any city or country usually requires a holistic approach, with the government and private sector working in collaboration. Besides the implementation of drone technology, what else can be done to ensure a proactive, cooperative and measured approach towards urban planning in Cambodia?
Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban planner once said “first life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works”. As I mentioned, UAV is just a technology which can be helpful in urban planning efforts but it will never replace a process which needs to be put in place in order to develop good urban plans. The process has to be open and transparent and put peoples’ rights and needs at the centre.
Phnom Penh Capital Hall has instruments and forums that can support an inclusive urban planning process. Another good example is the Urban Poor Poverty Reduction Working Group where different organisations bring their knowledge, skills and resources together in order to improve living conditions in the poor settlements.
Civil Society Organisations and numerous private companies are very interested in strategic urban planning efforts. I am strongly convinced that the first step is to develop a road map for preparation of such a plan, make it public, consult it with all stakeholders, review and then approve.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.