With 80% of its islands only one metre above sea level, the Maldives is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels threaten the livelihoods of almost all 409,000 Maldivians.

The government needs risk maps to understand what is happening across its islands, and has used drones to speed up the process. It usually takes about a year to map 11 islands, but using drones cut the time needed to one day. That is a massive saving for government, considering that there are over 160 inhabited Maldivian islands.

Over the past year, the United Nations Development Programme Maldives has collaborated with drone and robotics solutions providers and Maldivian government, private sector and non-governmental organisations to create 3D risk maps that help plan evacuations and disaster response.

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This project was shortlisted for the Best Drones and Robotics Project award at the GovInsider Innovation Awards, held at Innovation Labs World in Singapore on 26 September.

Risk maps are highly useful when tackling climate change: they allow authorities to identify safe areas in the event of a flood, and observe any changes to the terrain. “We can also see where the coast has been eroded at one end and where the soil is protected at another, because of the mangrove plantation and shifting sands,” wrote Sanny Jegillos, Senior Advisor for Disaster Risk Reduction at the UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub, in a blog post.

Following the success of this initiative, several Maldivian islands are in the process of being equipped with drones. Local emergency officials will be trained in how to use them, so that they will be able to create their own maps and learn how their environments are evolving over time.

Drones are increasingly being used to address development challenges in unconventional ways. The winner of the Best Drones and Robotics Project award at last year’s Innovation Awards was a joint collaboration between the Swandiri Institute and Pulse Lab Jakarta, in which drones helped Indonesian farmers save 60% of their expenses through precision agriculture.

In Malaysia, a fleet of drones has helped a major electricity provider to save RM1 million (~US$233,590) in costs of monitoring power lines. And in Western Australia, a two-year pilot was approved this year to use drones in covert operations; they would cost 70 cents per hour to run, compared to hundreds of dollars in fuel costs alone for a helicopter.

Eventually, with the help of these ‘eyes’ in the sky, the Maldives will be better equipped to deal with extreme weather brought on by climate change.

This article is part of a series that GovInsider is running on the best government innovations in APAC.

Screenshot from this video by UNDP RCB