Drone Podcast 124 – Melissa Schiele
BVLOS, or beyond visual line of sight, drone flight seems to be the holy grail right now, with many companies trying to gain approval for deliveries, long distance mapping, and more. But what if you’re flying where there aren’t any regulations holding you back? That’s exactly what Melissa Schiele is doing!
Melissa Schiele is a marine ecologist from London, UK, who is flying in Belize, Maldives and British Indian Ocean Territories. She is flying BVLOS for a variety of missions including mapping, animal detection, and illegal activity detection. Awesome, right?!
As you’ve probably guessed, Melissa is our guest this week on the drone podcast, and she has a wealth of knowledge to share about flying BVLOS, licensing, international flight, and more.
Now let’s get to today’s chat where we’ll hear all about BVLOS drone flight, and Melissa’s journey with drones.
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BVLOS Drone Flight with Melissa Schiele
Hi Melissa. How’s it going?
It’s going very well, thank you. How are you?
I’m doing good, thanks. Can you just introduce yourself to everybody please?
Yep. My name is Melissa Schiele. I’m from London in the UK, and I am currently a marine ecologist and PhD student.
Oh, very interesting. How far into your PhD are you?
I am now about eight months, I reckon. I need to do the maths, but I think I’m about eight or 10 months into my PhD at the moment. It’s kind of a continuation of research that I started about two years ago with the Zoological Society of London. I started my research with them on my master’s course and I’ve been involved in the drone world ever since.
Oh, so what was it that got you into drones? Was it that side of things or did you have a personal interest and then you were able to carry it over?
I’ve always been interested in airplanes and flying and piloting, but have never had the opportunity to be a pilot myself, unfortunately, not yet anyway. When I started doing my conservation science and marine ecology master’s, I met a scientist called Tom Letessier. He’s based at the Zoological Society. It’s basically the zoo when I say Zoological Society. We started talking about a potential research project and he said, “Well, I’m interested in doing something with drones.”
I was like, “Aha, this is really interesting. It will combine my passion for marine sciences, but also the planes, the drones, but more importantly, the link between conservation and technology.” At the moment, drones in general are becoming very popular in not just marine ecology, but also terrestrial ecology. When I say ecology, that broadens out into biology as well. We use them for detection of animals. Some people use them to map different areas. Some people also use them to look for illegal activity as well, which is part of what I do.
How did you train for this at first? Was it something through the university or did you go and seek training from an outside provider?
When I started that master’s course, I had zero drone training. I had no experience at all with drones, but I knew a little bit about flights and I had been flying before. When I started the research project itself, I was actually sent from the UK to Canada, to Toronto, for a week. I had a crash course in how to fly a two-meter wingspan fixed-wing and also how to fix the machine, and also how to plan flights and use Mission Planner as well.
It was really intense actually, because it was completely different to anything I’d done before, but because I, as my supervisor puts it, played video games in the past, there was an assumption that I would be able to pick it up pretty quickly. Luckily, that was the case, but I was still pretty green. I had this week of training and maybe a couple of days flying. We took the drone out to Lake Erie and we did its first landing on the water because it’s a water-landing drone and there were still some teething issues.
I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m in too deep, oh my goodness.” Anyway, I took the drones from there straight to the Maldives via Zurich with all the equipment. Oh my goodness. The logistics of carrying that much kit is interesting in its own right. Then from there I went to my first field trip. I was out in the field for two months flying.
You mentioned it was a crash course. You didn’t crash though, right?
Oh, no. Well-
Okay. When you said that, I just thought I would ask.
No. That’s fair enough.
Yeah. Well, I had to learn to deploy by hand and there were some shaky deployments for sure, but no. I got it in the end, which was good.
Yeah. It seems like hand launching is one of the things that catches people a little bit because I’ve seen eBee pilots throw the drones several times before it actually takes flight, right? It’s-
Flying in the Maldives
Yeah. I understand that. You mentioned you had a two-month deployment, was that in the Maldives or where was that?
That was in a part of the British territories, which is just south of the Maldives. They were a collection of islands known as the British Indian Ocean Territories and that bunch of islands is technically British. There is one inhabited island there which is a U.S. naval base, but all the other islands, I think there’s about 62 islands in total, they’re all uninhabited. There’s a lot of wildlife there and undisturbed coral reefs and loads of very important bird populations.
These are the areas that we do all of our research on. The other side of the research that I do is actually looking for illegal fishing vessels. We’re exploring how best to use and how best to develop a water-landing, fixed-wing drone in these really tough environments. It’s super remote and it’s hot, and your telemetry systems do not function as they say they should on the box. It’s a real challenge for us to … Well, that’s essentially what my PhD is about, trying to figure out the best way to build these machines.
Then operationally, how to fly them and incorporate them into daily operations on the vessel, and then how to analyze that data afterwards.
Detecting illegal fishing vessels via drone
What do you look for when you’re looking for an illegal fishing vessel? Is there specific activity that you’re watching for, or is it just not allowed in certain areas, or how does it work?
In terms of the British Indian Ocean Territories, the entire territory itself, islands and associated ocean, is about 640,000 square kilometers. In 2010, the British government deemed this whole area as a protected area, a marine protected area. At the time it was the biggest one in the world. It’s about between fifth and 10th biggest in the world now, but still the biggest in the Indian Ocean. What that means is in that whole area, you’re not allowed to do any commercial fishing.
Any vessels that do come through that area that say in transit, mustn’t drop any lines and mustn’t be doing any fishing. The kinds of vessels that we’re most likely to encounter are small to medium size fishing vessels from places, Sri Lanka or India. They go down through the territories and they come out the other side and they do their fishing in the areas like Seychelles, Mauritius, that kind of zone. It’s these opportunistic fishermen that start dropping lines in the territory that we’re looking for because they’re targeting animals such as tuna, but also sharks.
It’s no news to anyone that sharks are critically endangered around the world, and because BIOT is so pristine, we’re very keen to keep these particular areas as untouched as possible. In terms of finding these illegal fishing boats, it’s incredibly difficult because, firstly, they’re very small and the range of the radar on the vessel, the patrol vessel itself, is limited to a particular … I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to get away too many secrets.
Yeah. No. Don’t give away the secrets.
It’s limited and there’s one patrol vessel in the whole territory at the moment. It costs money to run these big boats. What we’re trying to do is see whether a fixed-wing drone on board can be used by the fisheries officer to extend the range and extend the eyes of the team on board in order to detect these people out on the waters. They’re mainly operating at nighttime, so I’m also looking into infrared capabilities on board as well.
BVLOS Drone Flight
It sounds like you need to fly BVLOS to make it truly effective. Is that something that you’re employing with these tests?
I almost exclusively fly BVLOS. Yeah. For one, it’s been BVLOS mainly because we’re trying to get beyond the range of the radar, but also we’re very interested in height as well. How far the drone can actually see. We’re experimenting with a few different cameras on board as well. Beyond the visual line of sight, absolutely, for detection of vessels. One of the best ways that we know we can definitely use the drones is to map and survey the islands, especially those which are really difficult to physically get onto.
Ordinarily, the fisheries patrol officer will take one of the small vessels from our larger vessel and be dropped off onto the island for about two to three hours. Their job is to go around, check for turtle nesting sites and monitor how many birds around the area, looking for ghost nets, these sorts of things. Now, what we’ve noticed from our last trip is that the drone is actually really good at doing all of this in about 10 minutes because the islands are actually really small. We know that the drone already ticks that box, so it’s hopefully going to be used for that purpose in the future.
That sounds like a massive time saver and basically like a force multiplier. What’s the regulatory environment look like there? Is it pretty much unregulated when you’re off shore? Then, do you have anything special you need to follow while you’re working on the island?
In terms of regulation, that’s actually a really good question. When I’m working in the British Indian Ocean Territories, because firstly the territories are empty in terms of people, we don’t have the restrictions when it comes to flying in populated areas because we’re essentially out in the middle of the ocean. We’re in the islands where there’s no people. However, we do have protected bird colonies and those sorts of things, so when I’m flying, I’m a qualified drone pilot so I have to ensure that there’s a safety of all my friends and my crew and my colleagues and kit.
Also, the animals in the area as well. Because we land on the water, it’s like the biggest runway in the world, we’re quite lucky in that respect. We pick the drone up from the water as well. In terms of safety issues, we don’t have too many things to worry about. We have permission from the British government to go ahead. We work quite closely with the administration in BIOT and they’re very aware of what we do. My other partner is the Marine Management Organisation.
That’s a government organization, which essentially polices all of the waters of the UK, not just in the UK, but all our other territories as well. We’ve got all the right people on our team. I have flown at the naval base as well, but that did require some more in-depth permission seeking because it was working directly with the military, but they were super cool about it. They let us fly in one of the turtle areas on the Island, as long as I didn’t gather any information on what they were doing there.
That was not really too much of a problem. Yeah. No. In terms of BIOT, it’s not really an issue, but that’s not really comparable to most countries in the world. The other places that we’ve flown in was Belize. What we have to do when we’re going into a new territory is working with a local partner. We then approach the civil aviation authority in that country. We go through their process in terms of getting permissions and paperwork in place.
Now, what we noticed in Belize is they didn’t really have too many restrictions and they were very open to us flying in the town of Atoll. They were very supportive, which was really good because then it was for science and research. I went to Uganda last year and I was there for three weeks. I unfortunately was completely grounded because they didn’t have any paperwork or any previous experience of allowing fixed-wings to fly around Lake Victoria. It’s a new territory. It’s very much in its infancy.
We’re trying our best. We’re working with the air force out there and some local fisheries, NGOs as well, and universities to build confidence between us and them and them and us to allow for these research flights to go ahead, because we’re interested in mapping fishing distributions in the lake as well. I’ll be going back there, hopefully this year, if not next. I’ll have some representatives from the air force with me as well because I’m very interested in training people in these places as well to use the drones and potentially for them to use them for their own activities as well.
Our whole system is designed to be very low cost and easy to repair as well, because obviously things happen in the fields, and there’s no sense in-
Yes. They do.
Yeah. There’s no point in sending a system out or sending me and a system out somewhere, which I can’t fix quite honestly, duct tape and glue. Yeah. In terms of regulation it’s not easy, absolutely not easy. We tried to fly in New Caledonia and from what I could tell at the time, there were no fixed-wings in the country. I’m coming along with my drone. It comes in a huge Peli case and the people at the airport, they think I’m mad. They’re like, “What is this? Is it a weapon?”
I’ve got so many different boxes and cases with me. Some people think I’m a film crew. Some people think I’m with the military. It’s also learning how to navigate that potential minefield and really learn how to communicate properly with these people as not to alert anyone or give off the wrong impression.
Yeah. That totally makes sense, because if you … Watching some documentaries where they’re traversing several countries, there are a lot of problems with that depending on what you’re carrying, right? I understand that. Just going back to the BVLOS thing, I know a lot of countries around the world, like here in Canada and the U.S. and pretty much everywhere, they’re trying to explore ways to conduct BVLOS flight and get approval from the regulatory body.
When you first started doing this, did you have to prove your use case and how you would coordinate everything? Or was it just a paperwork thing?
We were quite fortunate because our first BVLOS flying within British airspace, should we say, was in BIOT, which is in the middle of the ocean. In that sense, we didn’t have to prove our worthiness or anything like that because there were absolutely negligible risks out there to anyone or anything. I appreciate that that’s definitely not the normal situation. At this moment now, because of restrictions for flying and whatnot in other places, we’re trying to start flying in the UK.
We are very much at that forefront as well. We’re now trying to explore how we’re going to fly off the coast of the UK, be it within the exclusive economic zone or outside of the exclusive economic zone, so that’s like high seas, as it were. Recently in the UK, the CAA opened a sandbox and we’re going to be participating in this. They’re trying to explore the different kinds of users who might be interested in doing BVLOS, so that might be other surveillance people. It could be agricultural.
In our instance, it’s going to be enforcement and research. We are reaching that point now that we are probably going to have to have an approximation of an airworthiness certificate for the UAV as well. And because we’re developing our UAV ourselves, I need to understand how to do that professionally and properly and what’s going to be expected from the CAA. Also, the CAA needs to understand that we need to know what they want. At this stage in time, we don’t exactly know what that is yet.
We don’t have detect and avoid on our system at the moment as an example, and we’re going to be flying in a much more crowded airspace. I need to understand what they want and they need to understand what we’re going to be doing. We’re still in that early stage situation at the moment and for us, it’s a bit tricky, because we don’t have great open spaces like you do in Canada. I do believe that there is going to be a BVLOS testing air space, if it doesn’t already exist, actually, not too far from where we are now.
Of course, then we have to negotiate getting access to that space as well. It’s very much a thing. It’s very much happening, but from my perspective, with what we’ve got with our water-landing drones, it’s still very much in its infancy. I guess we haven’t really spent as much time on it as maybe other people have because we’ve been doing things internationally. I guess it’s time now to come home and sit down with the paperwork and figure out what is it that we need to present in terms of flying BVLOS in the UK.
What are the manned regulation or manned aviation rules when it comes to altitudes of flight? Is there a minimum altitude that they have to achieve and then you can fly below them? Or what would be the plan if there isn’t a sense and avoid system on the drone?
Yeah. This is a very good question. I believe it’s between three and 500 feet. We shouldn’t be flying above 300 feet, at all, but whether that will change for BVLOS, I’m not sure. It’s a really tricky question to answer because everything is always changing when it comes to the CAA in the UK and the regulations get changed a lot. Also, at the moment, the way in which drone pilots are certified is currently being changed as well. If I understand correctly, the CAA no longer will require you to be a qualified pilot for drones.
There’s going to be a selection of paperwork, forms that you need to fill in before you do flights. The whole system is being reassessed as it were. Is that the same in Canada? Is that being reassessed as well? Because here there are some huge changes coming in.
Drone Regulations in Canada
Last summer we had a massive change. I think it was June 1st of 2019. We had the new regulations come into effect. Prior to that, we had an older system that came from standard aviation, where you had to apply for a special permit to be able to fly, but it was never meant to be for drones. It was more meant for special operations like for example, a helicopter carrying an air conditioning unit through a major city and dropping it on a roof of a building for installation.
Things like that are what they were mainly looking for. The system got bombarded with applications from drone pilots now looking to fly. They’ve removed that and now they have an actual licensing system. You have to both pass a test and then go and do an actual flight test with a reviewer to show that you have your skills, which I think is critical. I know a lot of countries, especially like our neighbors to the south, the FAA doesn’t require them to actually do a flight test.
If you do the paper exam and pass, then you are good to go, which doesn’t make much sense to me because you don’t have that background of flying. Yeah. I think it’s critical. I think we’re in good shape with our regulations. Yeah. I’m looking forward to see what yours will morph into.
Drone Regulations in the UK
Absolutely. At the moment, that’s how ours is as well. You need to do a written test. You need to produce an operations manual for the drone that it is that you fly and you need to have a practical exam as well. That’s what I did with my fixed-wing, which was really good fun, but as I understand, that’s not going to be the case post-July. I obviously hope I’ve got that information right because I heard that a couple months ago and whether that’s changed again, I don’t know.
We sit and we wait basically to see what’s going to be happening. I think the whole industry is gearing up and trying to figure out how they can incorporate BVLOS because it’s inevitable. It’s going to be coming in some format in the next couple of years. I just hope from a researcher standpoint that we don’t get squeezed and forgotten about, because sometimes in a lot of this legislation, they differentiate you as commercial or recreational.
We’re in this funny little zone of researchers and scientists where we’re not fully commercial, but we do operate in a commercial sense and the same way as a commercial person would operate, but we’re not necessarily charging for our services. We’re doing it to gather data and produce science. I understand that there’s been a bit of a conflict in some of the current paperwork and we’re not quite sure where we fit in. This needs to be quite clearly clarified by the CAA so we can do what we need to do.
Otherwise, I don’t know how it’s going to work. Do we get put into the recreational bracket? Then the kinds of drones that we use may be limited, or if we’re in the commercial section, does that again limit how we operate? It’s very unclear at the moment, so this is all going to be my homework in the next couple of months, I guess because we need to get our-
Find out where it’s going and then prepare for it, right?
Yeah. Absolutely. Find out where it’s going. How do we prepare? All I can really do now in terms of the CAA is present my case like, “This is my machine. This is what it does. This is what I want to do with it.” Whether or not they’re going to want me to put a DAA on boards, I don’t know. I have no idea. Am I going to have to build a bigger drone to accept a bigger payload and do I have to change my camera types? Then there’s the whole data protection issues. Yeah. Flying in the UK it’s not the easiest.
It’s definitely currently easier in BIOT and in Belize, but I guess that’s part of the challenge. It’s not just me, it’s so many other people at the forefront of this trying to figure it out. Yeah. Let’s see where it goes.
Drone mapping in the British Indian Ocean Territories
Let’s go back to BIOT for a second. You mentioned mapping of the islands, is that being conducted with over the water? I guess I have two questions here. What software are they processing the data with? Secondly, how far out into the water are you able to capture actionable data without it just morphing into nonsense due to the water continually moving?
That’s a really good question, actually. I literally have only just started making orthomosaics, because ordinarily my analysis of the images doesn’t actually require them. The habitat mapping and the surveillance of the islands in this respect is something that we’ve just realized is really useful, literally, I think I came back a month ago. I’m at home at the moment. I don’t have access to all of the high-spec computers and software, which is on campus.
Literally over there, I can see it. It’s really, really frustrating. I’ve actually downloaded … Now, this is live action as I speak. It’s a software called WebODM and I’ve literally just managed to create one map with it at the moment. I’m just playing around and learning how it all works. In terms of it being able to figure out how to stitch together ocean, not so great, not so good at the moment. It seems that it’s struggling a little bit with my transect design and the fact that the side overlap, it doesn’t exist, essentially. Mine are just linear transects.
What it has managed to be able to do is to create one slither down, one side of one island. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been able to process anything else. Now, that’s not because it can’t necessarily do it. I am very new to this software and I’ve literally … I think I just produced the map like two/three days ago. I’m really chuffed with the map that it produced. It’s beautiful, but unfortunately it hasn’t quite included the entire transects.
On saying that, however, one of our master students from last year who came with us to Belize, she did some mapping with the images that we produced because she was analyzing how much resolution you can get in terms of identification of different corals. We flew at different altitudes and she was able to do some analysis and identify optimal heights for identifying corals. She produced some really gorgeous orthomosaics using a piece of software.
It wasn’t Pix4D. I’m trying to remember exactly which one it was. In fact, if you can hold on, Chris, I might actually be able to find it if that’s okay.
Yeah. Sure. Is it an online processing application or is it something local that you’d run with?
My ones online and hers I think was local. Right. Here we go. Just give me one second. Sorry. I should have probably had this up and running already.
No. It’s no problem at all. We don’t know where the conversation is going to lead to, so it’s okay.
Yeah. No. Absolutely. Here we go. The type of analysis she used was called … So, let me just read a sentence. “Images were stitched to form orthophotos and transformed into thematic maps through semi-automatic object-based image analysis.” That’s OBIA. Does it have the software? This paper has actually been published now and I can send you a link to it, Chris, but it’s not been put online just yet.
Okay. Yeah. Sure. I can share that with people, if it’s okay to share?
Yeah. At the moment, the zoo are just prepping their social media posts and stuff. Once that’s on Twitter, I can link it to you as well.
UAV orthogeneration. Okay. It says here, “The photogrammetry software of 3DF Zephyr Aerial.” That’s what it’s called, 3DF Zephyr Aerial is the software that she used. Version 4.353, and that’s 3D flow from 2015. That’s the reference there. It’s not a software that I’ve ever used, but because she was doing habitat analysis, that’s what she was using. To step back a little bit, the reason that I’ve never really done orthomosaics before is because I’m just counting the animals.
Counting wildlife with drones
What I tend to do is go through thousands of images manually, and I will count all of the detections that I can see of sharks or turtles or birds. We’re looking for dolphins as well, but I haven’t detected any. In Belize, we were able to detect the manatees, which was awesome. Yeah. Those are the kinds of analysis that I do. I do count analysis. I do detections, but I’ve got this idea of creating a big orthomosaic and just counting the animals directly from the orthomosaic. I need to make sure that I’m not losing any detections, and that’s also part of my research as well.
With the animals moving, how do you know that you haven’t counted the same one twice, or more?
Precisely. That’s a really good question there are various ways that you can account for double detections as well. When I did my master’s research, it obviously was a little bit simpler than the kind of analysis I’m doing now. As a kind of rule of thumb from my detections, you would see the same animal roughly about four or five times. What I did was with the final dataset, I retained every fifth image or every fifth slide as it were that way we very basically accounted for double or triple counting, or in that case every fifth.
Yeah. That makes sense because it was something I wondered about because I’ve had people call me up and ask that they want me to count deer and things like that. I just wondered because I’m like, “They’re going to continuously move and if I create a map, I don’t know if it’s the same deer that’s just moved to a different area and I’m going to be looking at the same one again.” It-
No. Absolutely. Yeah. No. That’s a really, really valid point and it’s super important in spatial ecology, which is something … that’s the field that I’m sitting in at the moment. There are various ways of doing that, but with the orthomosaic, my thinking was that if I can create an orthomosaic of the entire island, then I have a snapshot of the entire islands. The drone flies around the island in like a minute to five minutes. It’s very, very quick. These islands are super tiny.
That’s one way of doing it. Or, you can use the methods of retaining every fifth image or however that reflects the frequency at which you’re seeing animals based on how quickly your drone is flying. With the shots-
One thought I just had on that was too, if you flew with less overlap and maybe a little bit higher, as long as you could still see the detail, then you could probably get away with fewer images and hopefully be able to prevent movements, right? Because if your overlap is too high and you’re flying too low, then you’re going to have I guess, very high likelihood that they’re going to move. If you can capture far and wide and lower your overlap, then it might be a good way to do it.
It is, absolutely. It’s definitely one of the methods that you can use. The good thing about having maybe a slightly lower overlap is that, especially with things like birds, you’re more than likely to detect them at some point. However, one thing I did notice with having a very high overlap or a lot of stills being taken per a second, so for example, in Belize, we had six stills being taken every second, is that if I hadn’t have had six stills being taken per second, I would have missed an eagle ray completely.
I may have seen maybe one picture of it and it would have been quite blurry. Whereas when I had quite the high overlap, I was actually able to see an eagle ray breaching. You can see it coming in, jumping out of the water, being in the air and landing again. It is a bit of a trade-off. On one hand you don’t want to have thousands and thousands and thousands of images because at the end of the day, someone or a system is going to have to go through all of that.
On the other hand, it’s really nice when you do have multiple images of animals because you are able to not only have more chance of detecting them, but also more chance of seeing any behavioral activity as well. Then I guess an obvious question people might be wondering is, why don’t you take videos? I have done, but unfortunately, because of the drone, the nadir camera, it’s not on a gimbal so it’s kind of jumpy. Up in the air, above the oceans and the islands, it’s really windy.
You can imagine there’s quite a load of jitter. Also when the drone is trying to stabilize in the air, there’s a lot of obliqueness as well. When you then try to pull the frames or the stills from that, the resolution tends to drop quite a lot and it can be quite tricky to spot anything, even during the movie and the flight, because the drone is going at 64 kilometers per hour. It’s really tricky to actually, “Ah, is that something? Oh, was that something?” That’s why we use stills, because film, it just makes things a little bit trickier to detect.
Yeah, that totally makes sense. It was interesting you discussed the trade-offs between the high overlap and the lower overlap. I understand, yeah, if it’s a higher overlap with six per second, then you do have the benefit of catching those rare opportunities versus a longer period of time between the shots.
That was very, very interesting. Melissa, I just want to thank you for your time today and letting us know what you’re doing with your research. It was very interesting. Where can people find you online if they want to check out more of what you’re doing?
Yeah, my pleasure. The best place to find me online, you can either Google my name. It seems that lots of things pop up if you do that, or Twitter is probably the best place. My handle is explorer_mel. That’s just M-E-L. Yeah. I’m on Twitter all the time. Swing by, have a look at my profile, have a look at my colleagues. If you have any questions, please by all means just fire them to me or if you have any tips. I always love tips. I’m very new to all of this still, so any tips or any suggestions I’m very open to those as well.
Sounds good. I think you probably will get some people reaching out to you. It seems like after every chat, I do get some feedback saying, “Oh, somebody reached out and we had a discussion about this or collaborated on that.” Yeah. I think your Twitter, or if they Google your name, there’s probably going to be some feedback for you. I look forward to hearing how everything goes and if you do get some interesting collaborations.
Thank you so much. Well, thank you so much for the opportunity as well, Chris. It’s been really, really fun to talk about my research.
Thanks for listening!
I hope you enjoyed this week’s chat with Melissa Schiele from the UK! If you know of any other drone pilots that would like to hear this, we’d love you forever if you shared it with them!