Local community members review aerial maps from a drone survey of the Philippines’ Cordova municipality. (Photograph courtesy of Jaime Faustino/The Asia Foundation) 

Jaime Faustino proudly describes the scene: people huddled around a picnic table in Cordova, a small island municipality in the Philippines, drawing lines around their homes on a high-resolution map. A drone flying overhead created the map minutes before, giving these Cordova residents their first aerial view of the land they live on. They hope to use it to apply for formal titles for that land.

In the Philippines, more than eight million land parcels, or nearly half of all residential properties, are untitled. Worldwide, about 75 percent of land holdings lack documentation, according to The Land Alliance, a nonprofit focused on global land rights. That becomes a problem when parties disagree about who owns what land but don’t have a legal record to prove ownership.

“If you understand that you are illegally occupying land, you understand that your tenure is highly ready for eviction, you don’t tend to make many long-term investments and commitments to your life, and you live day by day,” says Peter Rabley, who directs property rights investments for Omidyar Network. “People have a right to secure their rights and document it and be protected under the law.”

Rabley approached Faustino, a Philippines native who works with The Asia Foundation, a year ago about using drones to survey more efficiently. Faustino was initially skeptical but decided to give it a try. “One of the principles of entrepreneurship is to make small bets,” he says.

Faustino had been advocating since 2007 for legislation to expedite land titling in his home country. In 2010, the Philippine legislature passed the Residential Free Patent Act, which made the process of applying for titles for occupied but unregistered residential tracts significantly faster and easier. Before the law passed, the national government issued about 4,000 residential land deeds per year; today, it issues about 60,000 annually. But the legal change didn’t solve the technical problem of mapping complex claims, Faustino says.

To aid in the titling process, Rabley and Faustino helped lead the push to pilot the drone mapping program in Cordova, forming a partnership between local surveyors, a Philippine drone company, government regulators, The Asia Foundation, Omidyar Network, and international surveying companies. Omidyar contributed two drones for the pilot. Faustino now sees the technology as an essential complement to new legislation and has spearheaded efforts to encourage the government to accept drone-gathered mapping data when granting titles.

So why aren’t there more than two test drones involved in the country’s new land titling push? For one, although the 2010 law and the drone mapping technology have made it easier to apply for titles, the government office that grants them hasn’t increased its budget and personnel accordingly, meaning the capacity to approve claims remains limited, says Faustino. Moreover, officials have yet to really learn how the new technology work s. “If they’re going to accredit people to be survey-grade drone operators, they better know what they’re doing themselves,” Faustino says. Otherwise, “it’s kind of like the DMV issuing licenses, but they don’t really know how to drive themselves.”

Local surveyors also need to learn how to use the technology to complement their existing equipment. Luckily, the price for a drone and mapping software isn’t much more than that of the typical groundbased GPS equipment already used by independent surveyors. As drone technology continues to decrease in price, Faustino hopes to see self-employed drone surveyors popping up across the country.

“The blessing is the ability for the technology to enable the government to leapfrog, to potentially do things a lot cheaper and faster,” says Oliver Petzold of The Asia Foundation, who helped support the project. “The danger is that you sort of introduce the technology and it sounds great at first, but once you remove yourself from the project, then it falls into disarray.” He adds that the goal is “to avoid a situation where you’re imposing some solution on a problem where it doesn’t really fit.” Currently, the innovation might not work perfectly, but there is high potential for social and economic gains if it succeeds, he says.

Meanwhile, The Asia Foundation is also using unmanned aerial vehicles to map the sprawling outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to better understand how to extend municipal services out to the shantytowns. Other groups such as The Land Alliance are using drone mapping in Peru.

“I can see within five years every surveying company having a fleet of drones,” Rabley says. And that could be a big help around the world in affirming people’s rights to their own property.

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