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Drones in Disaster Management

Updated: May 23, 2022

Drones in Disaster management


Disaster risk reduction, preparedness, response, recovery, relief and rehabilitation. These are the building blocks of disaster management. Modern technological breakthroughs such as drones can be leveraged to improve the efficacy of these through improved response time, greater and faster data acquisition and analysis, and remote operation.

Drones are not only quick to deploy, but they are also cheaper and can be remotely operated from a safe distance. Drones have a multitude of applications in disaster management and if designed to be user friendly, they can prove crucial in saving someone’s life.

The broad application of drones in disaster management can be divided as follows:

· Disaster identification, preparedness and prevention

· Risk mitigation and emergency response

· Post - disaster relief operations, damage assessment and rehabilitation

Going ahead, I shall brief you about these applications and point to resources for further reading.

Assessing vulnerability and preparing for a disaster

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. – Benjamin Franklin

Disaster sensitive areas such as flood plains, mountain slopes, old bridges and buildings, and fire prone areas are surveyed and assessed at regular intervals of time. Assessments provide data about the key vulnerabilities of these areas and thus help disaster management forces be prepared for any eventuality. Traditionally, such assessment operations took anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks because of manual gathering of data. An old bridge would have to be closed for about a week to assess its health and strength.

The use of drones in such inspection can drastically reduce the time required to gather critical data. A study showed that the inspection of a bridge could be completed in hours rather than weeks using drones [1]. Drones can also combine their onboard intelligence to quickly analyse gathered data to provide actionable intelligence to the concerned personnel. Such remote operations not only cost less but also prevent personnel from putting themselves in harm’s way.

Search and rescue operations

Search and rescue operations are some of the most difficult operations not only because of their complexity but also because of their very urgent nature. Making decisions on-field, in the midst of a disaster is always challenging and the lives of many people might hinge on it. Drones can provide invaluable data and analysis during such times. Data can help the on-field commanders make important and lifesaving decisions with relative ease. Drones are also easy and quick to deploy and can reach the disaster zone much before personnel arrive so that they are prepared for what they are against. In case of flood or fire rescue, the drones can be fitted with thermal cameras. They can then look out for heat signatures to identify humans and use geo-tagging to help rescuers locate them. Search and rescue drones are often capable of flying in a GPS denied environment, making them extremely useful in underground rescue operations.

Drone companies worldwide are increasingly focusing on this market[2]. Industry leaders such as Skydio and DJI have also made significant breakthroughs in AI and autonomous flight, which makes the rescue operations much faster and easier for the personnel involved. In India, companies such as Idea Forge and Drone Stark Technologies are growing at a rapid pace in this sector.

Monitoring, damage assessment and resource allocation post-disaster

Measuring the extent of damage caused by a disaster is crucial. This data allows authorities to allocate appropriate amounts of funds and deploy the necessary number of on-field personnel to manage the fallout. Unsurprisingly, drones can be the answer here going forward. Drones fitted with multispectral cameras can run non-invasive scans of huge structures and areas to generate 3D models and orthophoto maps. These maps provide a very detailed map of the area of interest and can point to any existing irregularities. They can then be compared to previous scans of the area to determine the extent of damage and requirement of repair. This report[3] points to the efficacy of drones in damage assessment.

Apart from assessing the extent of damage, drones can also identify sensitive areas post disaster that require more attention from rescue personnel. Similarly, safe zones can also be determined so that people can be brought out safely, provided with prompt treatment and monitored for any post traumatic stresses.

Rebuilding and reconstruction

When we rebuild a house, we are rebuilding a home. When we recover from disaster, we are rebuilding lives and livelihoods. -Sri Mulyani Indrawati

Apart from providing passive assistance in form of imagery and analytics, drones can also be deployed to actually perform some of the heavy lifting. Emergency cargo can be loaded onto drones and delivered quickly to affected areas. This is especially useful when such areas are not accessible by land or water. The drones are attached with loudspeakers and cameras as auxiliary payloads that can provide visual feedback to the rescuers and can enable speaking with the disaster victims. The primary payload such as food parcels or lifejackets is attached to the drone that can then be dropped at precise locations for the victims.

Drones can also be placed at a disaster site to function as an ad-hoc emergency communication network. These drones can provide temporary, mobile communication to the outside world and can host portals that update both the rescuers and victims regarding the situation. This paper[4] explains a lot more.

What does the future hold?

In the future, drones are expected to get much smarter and faster. Powered with 5G based telemetry communications and AI driven autonomous systems, one can only imagine what drones could do in the disaster management space.

A drone could, for instance, dash into a building on fire and navigate its way to the top leveraging its autonomous flying capabilities. It could, on the way, identify victims, their probable condition and estimate their vitals through advanced image processing. Then, whilst it relays back this data over a high speed 5G network to the rescue personnel, it would geo-tag each victim in 3-dimensional space to provide the exact location to the fire fighters. And it would do all this in a GPS denied and hazardous environment. And guess what, this drone would be small enough to fit onto your palm.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As technology advances, the impact of drones in the disaster management sector will only increase. And this impact will be clearly visible through the number of lives saved.




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