Events - 22.03.2019 - 00:00 

START Summit 2019: Robots in the service of a good cause

With the help of artificial intelligence, drones can be enabled to save lives and act as environmental assistants. On the first day of the START Summit, high-tech entrepreneur Sonja Betschart spoke about new technologies in the service of global cooperation.

22 March 2019. The co-founder of the Swiss-American non-profit company WeRobotics regards new technologies as problem solvers. With a dozen employees, the manageress advocates the use of robots and artificial intelligence as agricultural assistants and rescuers in crisis situations in developing and emerging countries. "Drones provide farmers with information about the properties of their fields – and they do so more reliably and at lower cost than satellite pictures." Drones are easy to fly and can also fly below the clouds – a clear advantage in comparison with satellite pictures from space. "The pictures provide farmers with indications about the reforestation of their woods and the cultivation of their fields. And they facilitate the issuance of land certificates," says Sonja Betschart in the arena of the START Circus in the Olma Halls.

The impact of technology is crucial

Particularly in the emerging economies of Africa and South America to Asia and the Pacific Area, Sonja Betschart’s company champions the democratisation of high-tech solutions – with the help of firms such as the Chinese drone producer DJI and the French Parrot, the US geoinformation system developer Esri and patrons such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the foundations of computer and software giants like HP and Autodesk.

Flying labs help the company to offer local solutions, whether this is in the wake of a natural disaster or for the preservation of the ecosystem. "The best technology is no use if it doesn’t enable people to improve cooperation in order to solve problems. The most important part of our mission is therefore not the implementation of a drone or another new technology – the crucial point is to make them into a useful appliance for the local people." Therefore Sonja Betschart’s team relies on community work and the motto "localise, accelerate and share": being on site, accelerating problem solutions and sharing knowledge.

Bridging the "digital divide"

The implementation of drones and artificial intelligence in humanitarian aid or nature conservation has long been a global mission for Sonja Betschart rather than merely a locally limited "inventor’s issue". To the contrary: she wants to use WeRobotics to bridge the "digital divide" and to bring industry, NGOs and governments in developing countries together. "We’re working on solutions for development aid, the health sector and the environment sector." In a video clip, she reveals how cooperation with small farmers in Tanzania works. She also appears as an incubator for drone companies in Nepal and runs workshops in cooperation with governments and municipalities. Betschart wants to ensure that digital technologies are used "sensibly and sustainably" and help "democratise participation in the industrial revolution 4.0 in the global south". She bases her work on the power of shared knowledge: "We rely on our partners’ south-to-south network – thus farmers in Peru can provide municipalities in Tanzania with important information. They have the knowledge; we help them to form a network." Sonja Betschart returns from every business trip enriched: "I learn more and more from our partners in other countries – in this way we’re spreading a global network of knowledge together."

Sonja Betschart’s career led her from positions in various SMEs to big corporations and start-ups in the fields of digital transformation and the drone industry. Bilanz magazine awarded her the title of “Digital Shaper” in 2018 – entrepreneurs like her shape the digital future in a positive way.

Sources: Bilanz, Digital Shapers 2018, WeRobotics Blog, START Summit 2019

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