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You Need to Use UAVs in Emergencies

By Catholic Relief Services on September 14, 2017

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, really excel in emergencies as they satisfy the first need in an emergency: provide quick, cheap, and highly local damage estimates. UAV’s:

  1. Are small, portable, and easy to deploy. They can comfortably fit into a backpack and be deployed with the first available flight in (if country regulations allow).
  2. Can assess large and inaccessible areas quicker than humans, and without direct human control when programmed for autonomous flight.
  3. Can deliver images very quickly, at the fraction of cost or time of traditional satellite imagery
  4. Can improve the accuracy of the assessment with multi-spectral analysis, including infrared, ultraviolet, and visual imagery.
  5. Provide survey grade information with precise elevation measurements that can be visualized with standard software.

Here are two real-world examples of where drones have improved disaster response:

  • Assess the scale of damage: In CRS’s response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it was close to impossible to walk on foot and assess the damage, as the debris had been carried inland several blocks. But UAV’s being airborne had no issue flying the entire coastline and making very accurate and detailed maps of the devastation caused by the typhoon.
  • Assess building damage: In the Nepal emergency, where Ngo’s were responding to an earthquake, there were areas where the buildings were so damaged, it was impossible for humans to do damage assessments without risking their lives. UAV’s flew to those areas and were able to take images and create 3D models of the damaged structures, which could be explored using virtual reality headsets, or $20 Google Cardboard headsets, as if you were actually there, without having to risk your life.

5 Future Uses of UAVs in Emergencies

We anticipate using UAVs for disaster response and humanitarian relief in other was too, for example:

  1. Assess drainage / water paths
    • Find standing water: Stagnant water is a huge health problem in emergency response. Assessing and eliminating standing water pools is essential to prevent cholera outbreaks.
    • Understand elevation: UAV’s can help see the land elevation and plan drainage to provide more flooding resilient neighborhoods.
  2. Find lost survivors or survivors under rubble using thermal imagery
    • Find survivors under light rubble: For first responders, finding those that are still alive is a task where a couple of minutes can save lives. Having a UAV which can tell heat signatures below light rubble can be a valuable ally in finding people buried alive. Thermal cannot see below concrete, so it has its limits despite what Hollywood tells you, but is still valuable in identifying people on the surface, even if flown at night.
    • Find lost survivors in remote locations: Thermal cameras can see heat signatures, and a person lost in the wild will glow making them easy to find.
  3. Surveying potential camping sites / housing sites
    • Identify areas with flooding risk: Utilizing elevation maps made by UAVs, it is easy to assess potential flooding hazards and safe areas for new housing locations.
    • Make community decision on new locations: It is easier to engage in participatory mapping with multiple stakeholders with high resolution imagery that shows the damage versus trying to do participatory mapping on low resolution free imagery available on line that does not show damaged areas.
  4. Improve program monitoring and service delivery
    • Identify locational trends: when you couple monitoring data with high resolution imagery you can pinpoint follow up locations and identify potential location based causes. CRS was able to target areas in the Philippines without access to toilets by overlaying project monitoring data on UAV imagery.
    • Overlay multiple data sources on top of UAV imagery to improve service delivery.  CRS was able to incorporate participatory mapping, government data, project monitoring data, and UAV imagery to improve program intervention targeting.
  5. Creating backup cellphone networks when the ones on land are destroyed
    • Ad-hoc networking: Although a not a full-time solution due to limited flight time, UAV’s can carry network equipment which can create a mesh WiFi or 3G network in areas where the infrastructure has been damaged.

UAVs Need Prepositioning

One key barrier to using UAV’s in emergencies is the time it takes to book the flight and get the operator in country.  Given the dropping prices and accessible training, this makes a compelling case to having a regionally pre-positioned UAV that can be used in emergency prone areas, to expedite the process.

This also makes a case for having one staff per region trained on flying a UAV.  The first moments of a response are crucial and the deciding factor for what projects often do.  Having staff who can operate UAVs nearby can increase their usage, and the accuracy of our responses.

So what are you waiting for? Equip your emergency response with UAVs!

By Ognen Plavevski and Kathryn Clifton of CRS.


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Catholic Relief Services (CRS) provides humanitarian aid and development across the globe by responding to major emergencies, fighting disease and poverty, and nurturing peaceful and just societies. For almost 75 years CRS has assisted people and organizations on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality. CRS seeks out and assists the most poor and vulnerable overseas.
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3 Comments to “You Need to Use UAVs in Emergencies”

  1. Evert Bopp says:

    All valid applications bar the last one.
    Using UAV’s as carriers for comms solutions is simply not an option for a variety of reasons.
    Cost, limited range, stability & quality of service to name a few.
    I wrote about some of the issues a while ago: https://evertb.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/airborne-wifi-for-disaster-communications-cool-or-not/

  2. Mika Välitalo says:

    Thanks for the useful summary. Could you elaborate a bit more on the actual benefits of using drones. For example, once you were able to make detailed maps of the devastation caused by the typhoon, in what ways did you actually utilize the maps and how did they affect your decisions / activities?

    Also after creating 3D models of the damaged structures and exploring them using virtual reality headsets, what did you learn from them and in what specific ways did those models change your behavior, influence your decisions etc.?

  3. In the Philippines we used UAV imagery to conduct community planning with the local government and local stakeholder groups. This was an important tool to aid in decision making and prioritize areas of action. Inevitably people always have different opinions on what to do where. Actually looking at a single image of real-time damage together helps that decision making a lot. This is important to assure buy in and support from different stakeholder groups. They also used the imagery to decide on urban planning decisions for the recovery.

    In the case of Haiti CRS flew a UAV to document high risk areas before an emergency to help prioritize areas of response and preparation. UAV imagery gives survey grade elevation and slope estimates aside from what you can see visually. This information is very important for assigning risk and deciding on urban planning priorities to reduce risk.