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The recent floods in Malaysia which took the lives of more than two dozen people and displaced over 60,000 has brought up many  question by many netizens.

“Why did it take so long to send help?”

“Where are the drones that our country spent millions of Ringgit on?”

“Why is the drone community not doing anything?”

While we cannot really answer the questions above, we can share how drones can be the tool of choice for disaster management.

The Need for Mapping for prevention of disasters

Areas that are prone to large-scale disasters such as earthquakes and flooding benefit greatly from visual imaging and 3D mapping.

Manned aircraft are often too expensive to use, satellite mapping does not meet high-resolution needs, and both take too much time during emergency situations.

The use of drones to map disaster areas provides greater advantages in costs and in rapid response times when compared to traditional methods.

Drones can be deployed quickly, generate high-resolution and 3D mapping, identify hotspot areas that are likely to face calamity or monitor areas that have sustained the most damage and upload the data in real time to coordinate relief efforts.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, drones assisted in creating 3D maps and models through image processing software.

These aided in assessing the widespread damage, operating search and evacuation missions, reconstructing buildings and preserving areas of the city.

Drones in Search and Rescue 
Whether in disaster scenarios, or with more common search and rescue missions, it’s important that missing persons are found as soon as possible to maximise their chance of survival.

The probability of finding survivors is highest within the immediate 72 hours following a disaster. Beyond the probability declines rapidly. It’s essential to be swift and strong in these rescue operations.

In natural disasters such as earthquakes, or in devastation caused by explosions, people can be trapped under rubble. In floods it’s also likely that people can get stuck in areas with no safe way to escape such as rooftops or top-floor rooms.

Equally, in search and rescue missions, terrain is often difficult to navigate, such as mountain regions or vast areas of natural landscape.

Drones used for these types of search and rescue mission are often equipped with thermal imaging cameras which can help find missing persons in areas that are difficult to search.

This not only makes them more accurate for aiding in finding survivors, but they also provide a cheaper and safer option than sending in rescue helicopters in the first instance.

Damage assessments
Damage assessments are a costly but necessary part of disaster management. Usually workers have to walk, drive, hike or even dive into dangerous spots, painstakingly sift through debris, and collect all kinds of information manually to paint an accurate picture of a catastrophe.

Drones can also get into the heart of post-disaster chaos with little to no consequences while sending humans into the same situations could result in injuries or even death.

Lastly, using drones for disaster management streamlines communication between various agencies and individuals. Everyone who needs to receive critical updates can quickly be informed as soon as new information is available.

Real-life application: Disaster managers used drones to create detailed 3D maps following a devastating earthquake in Nepal. The maps helped officials pinpoint the most vulnerable areas and they were eventually used to reconstruct affected parts of the city.

Supply delivery
Natural disasters and terrorist attacks often serve a serious blow to infrastructure. When structures like roads, bridges, cables, and pipelines are disabled, tens of thousands of people are cut off from crucial resources like electricity, water and phone lines.

Drones are highly effective at delivering supplies since they don’t rely on traditional infrastructure to get from point A to point B. Recently, drones have delivered medicine, food, water, and other necessities to people in need.

Real-life application: AT&T recently partnered with a UK company called SoftBox to study ways to deliver life-saving medicine to rural communities.

Communications infrastructure
We rely heavily on mobile phones and the internet to communicate. When the structures that enable these tools crash, we’re instantly cut off from one another as seen in the recent floods where victims couldn’t ask for help when their mobile phone batteries died after 12 hours of staying out in the open on rooftops.

Disaster response crews lose contact with each other their effectiveness drops dramatically.

Drones bypass this problem by carrying payloads (like cameras and sensors) that can gather information independently. These tools can be a lifeline during serious disasters.

Real-life application: During Hurricane Katrina 225 km/hr winds disabled the electrical grid and destroyed cell towers. Drones weren’t used at the time, but in a similar situation today drones could act as WiFi hotspots and provide connectivity in disaster zones.

DRONES FOR DISASTER RECOVERY

Assessing Structural Damage
Relief workers often find it difficult and dangerous to assess structural damage from natural disasters. They often encounter buildings that are on the verge of collapsing, potential explosions due to chemical leaks and places that are hard to access such as tunnels and bridges.

After an F-5 tornado in Wichita, Kansas, drones were used to identify infrastructure that was critically damaged. Equipped with “sniffers” to detect high levels of methane, they were able to locate broken gas lines.

Workers then shut down the lines and fixed the breaches before an explosion could occur.

Disaster recovery also involves rebuilding areas that were affected whilst also analysing how to mitigate the effects if a similar event were to happen in the future.

In the wake of earthquakes, flood or fire, drones can assist in the safe inspection of infrastructure, so that repairs can be made more quickly than if they were done using traditional methods.

Using drones mean that repairs can also be done far more safely; measurements can be taken without anyone having to set foot on site and images of the damage can be relayed to the relevant authorities without anyone entering the fragile infrastructure.

A good recent example of drones being used for this type of incident awareness is the Toddbrook Reservoir in Derbyshire, UK, which became unstable in 2019 and threatened to flood the nearby town of Whaley Bridge.

UAVs were used by the emergency services to monitor the health of the reservoir wall and help to direct the appropriate response.

Similarly, drones are increasingly used in the construction industry to aid in the inspection of buildings and sites to help ensure safety and monitor progress.

USING DRONES FOR DISASTER PLANNING

Drones are increasingly being used to assist emergency services with disaster planning – whether that’s assessing the scale and impact of a disaster, managing traffic flow after a road traffic collision or monitoring an ongoing fire emergency.

Aerial images from drones can help build a picture of the emergency situation, during or after the event, so that the true scale and impact of can be explored.

These aerial images can be used in conjunction with existing maps, so that street and building names can overlay the aerial images to build a picture of the area, and aid with any reconstruction or additional resources that may be needed.

Due to their speed and agility, drones are likely to be used in emergency situations and natural disasters of all kinds for years to come.

Advancements in technology will only further allow UAVs to mitigate the devastation caused by natural disasters, as well as becoming an ever more valuable tool available to emergency responders all over the world.

Enabling Drones in Local Disaster Preparedness

By building national and local capacity and integrating drones into Disaster Risk Management(DRM) processes and protocols, the use of drones can be tailored to the risks and needs in the local context, and they can be used in reducing risks and increasing preparedness.

Through a field study in Chile to identify key benefits and challenges of drone implementation from lessons learned, combined with experiences from other actors and countries, the study identified a potential for drones in disaster preparedness, as well as current barriers for drone implementation, which should be considered and addressed for drones to effectively be implemented into local disaster preparedness efforts.

Creating an Enabling Environment

  • Integrating drones into DRM frameworks and action plans at the national and local levels, ensuring appropriate engagement and coordination of drones in disaster preparedness.
  • Mobilizing the needed resources to facilitate local implementation of drones, including through integration in DRM frameworks and action plans, and thereby allocation of resources for drones through national and local public budgets, and through engagement with the private sector.
  • Making drone use more accessible to local actors, including concerning regulations and certifications. Regulations impact and shape the engagement by determining who, when, and where drones may be used.

Bringing drone use to local disaster preparedness

  • Providing broad capacity development to encompass drone flight training, GIS software, and basic DRM training, as a holistic approach in training NGO volunteers and public actors.
  • Expanding the drone practitioner network for appropriate geographical coverage, including ensuring the engagement of local authorities and other public institutions, such as police and fire brigade, as well as increasing the network of volunteer pilots and analysts through NGOs and educational institutions.
  • Mitigating, whenever possible, technological limitations through engagement in technological developments and continued capacity development, including for technical maintenance of equipment.

Moving forward: Knowledge sharing and building on lessons learned

Some of these challenges have been mitigated in other countries. They can be leveraged as potential practices for enabling local integration of drones in Chile and other countries, including in overcoming processing time of drone imagery, making drone certification more accessible, mobilizing resources, such as through private sector engagement, and implementing different local capacity development approaches.

Further readings:

Acknowledgments: This study was supported by the non-governmental organizations WeRobotics and Chile Flying Labs. A special thanks to the coordinators of Chile Flying Labs at Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins in Santiago, Chile, for their support in conducting the field study and for providing their insights, expertise, and lessons learned from drone implementation in Chile. 

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