Taking a different tack: The use of drones for disaster response

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.

Armed drones, airstrikes and stealth operations are the most popular and controversial topics of discussion when it comes to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), however there are more uses for these aircrafts in times of trouble. Drones do not have to be used to destroy targets, but can be used for their primary purpose, to collect information and data to help communities. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, drones could be the difference between life and death.

Statistics projecting the global production of UAVs between 2013 and 2027, show that 95% of drones will be produced for military use, and only 5% for civilian use. With the development of technology weaved through the 2030 United Nations agenda on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), examining the importance of drones in a capacity-building sense becomes important. The dedicated goals for technological advancement in the UN agenda requires nations to address the needs and gaps in technology, improve cooperation, and facilitate the development, transfer and dissemination of relevant technologies. With this in mind, it’s time to look beyond the militarisation of drones, and consider the 5% of civilian uses – one of them being in humanitarian action such as disaster response.

Examples of drone models used in humanitarian action (Source: "Drones in Humanitarian Action: A Guide to the Use of Airborne Systems in Humanitarian Crises", Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, 14.02.2017.

Examples of drone models used in humanitarian action (Source: “Drones in Humanitarian Action: A Guide to the Use of Airborne Systems in Humanitarian Crises“, Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, 14.02.2017.

How are drones used in times of disaster and what is the extent of their capabilities?
The impacts of climate change are affecting the frequency and force of natural disasters. Last year we saw the scale of disasters affecting the most vulnerable communities such as in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone. We are also observing how even one of the most powerful nations, the United States, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, has not been able to deal with these emergencies quickly.

Drones, or UAVs, can alleviate and impact the speed of recovery efforts for communities to restore their livelihoods. In the case of natural disasters, drones can be used for land monitoring, remote sensing, and public security. They are able to perform many activities in disaster response work such as locating survivors and casualties, assessing the scale of damage, delivering supplies and aid to hard-to-reach areas, and prioritising high-need areas for recovery efforts.

Drones can benefit disaster response efforts in the following ways:

  • They are safe to use – As promoted in the military context, drones can enter vulnerable areas quickly without risking human safety. The people controlling the device, and the camera, are left in a safe location to coordinate and process the information gathered also allowing for a faster response.
  • They do not cost a lot – Drones are relatively cost-effective in comparison to aircrafts which require people on-board to operate them. With many designs and types being developed, it is possible to design a UAV aircraft to a size and weight which is not only inexpensive, but practical to use.
  • They can collect information and deliver aid to hard-to-reach areas – In times of disaster when infrastructure is damaged, roads are blocked, or people are cut off from means of transportation, drones have the capability to deliver aid and supplies to hard-to-reach areas. Heavy-duty drones can even deliver temporary infrastructure to these areas. It is a humanitarian imperative to supply life-saving equipment as fast as possible to populations affected by disasters, therefore drones have the potential to determine whether a relief operation is deemed a success or a failure. However, the technology for drones to deliver supplies is still in its infancy, and further advancement with this technology is required for the use of UAVs to be standardised for disaster response.
  • They produce high quality images quickly, and in turn allow for a faster response – In addition to UAV technology, methods of capturing images and mapping disaster areas include manned aircrafts such as helicopters, and satellite images. However, with the deployment of manned aircrafts being an expensive option, and satellite imagery producing lower quality image resolution, drones are an alternative for humanitarian action.
    Satellite images are mainly used for early impact analysis on small or medium map scales such as flood events, however, damage to infrastructure and critical areas require data to be processed on a large scale with higher resolution images. Satellites also cannot go below cloud cover which causes delays in capturing images. “After Superstorm Sandy, the New Jersey state Office of Emergency Management used imagery from FEMA satellites to coordinate actions, but could not use the images taken on many days because of persistent cloud cover” (“Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations“, April 2015, p. 16). Drones are able to go beyond cloud cover and process images and information faster.
  • They can improve communication links – An innovative ability of UAVs is their capability to act as temporary telecommunication devices. In many cases, natural disasters disrupt modes of communication due to damages to power lines and communication towers, causing a loss of cell-phone signal. Drones in these situations can send Wi-Fi and cell-phone coverage to those in affected areas.
  • They can make disaster response efforts more coordinated – With drones able to supply higher-definition images faster, organisations can work together in disaster response operations to better coordinate their supplies and personnel. Drones collecting information in remote areas can provide humanitarians with a bigger picture of the situation.

The use of drones in the Pacific
The Pacific region is one of the world’s most disaster-prone areas due to the small size of islands, their remoteness, and fragile biodiversity. Many islands have low elevation of land, and are exposed to changing ocean weather patterns. Over the last two decades, the number of casualties caused by weather-related disasters in the Pacific region has risen by over 21% and will only continue to grow (Justin T Locke, “Climate Change-Induced Migration in the Pacific Region: Sudden Crisis and Long-Term Developments“, Geographical Journal 175, no. 3, September 2009, p. 6).

Most recently in February 2018, the Kingdom of Tonga was hit by the worst cyclone in 60 years. The country’s emergency response team “said they were struggling to assess damage around the capital and the islands due to debris blocking roads and downed power lines, and were not likely to have a comprehensive assessment of the disaster” (Eleanor Ainge Roy, “Cyclone Gita: Tonga Devastated by Worst Storm in 60 Years“, the Guardian, 12.02.2018). The World Bank with the support of the Australian government used drones to assess the damage after Tropical Cyclone Gita to identify the level of damage across the many islands it has affected.

The UAVs in Tonga have flown across damaged areas, with the images being processed overnight into photographic maps to prioritise areas for recovery. The technology used allows for a comparison of the land before and after the cyclone, and will be able to increase the speed of recovery and improve the way resources are targeted for the disaster response.

In 2015, after the islands of Vanuatu experienced Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, the World Bank asked the Humanitarian UAV Network to deploy aircrafts to support their needs assessment. Working with officials from Vanuatu and representatives from Australia’s and New Zealand’s defence forces, the group created procedures for the operation, and identified government priorities for the initial assessment areas.

The UAVs carried out 200 flights, producing high-resolution images of infrastructure and damaged areas, and flew to areas with high altitude levels, typically unable to be reached by helicopters. Although the UAV mission had many challenges, the objective of the mission was achieved in that the drones mapped areas more quickly than any other available method.

Many institutions are increasingly using UAV technology to assess the damage caused by disasters. The International Organization for Migration has used drones in Haiti since 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Health Organization piloted the use of drones in Papua New Guinea and Bhutan in 2014, and several institutions have also used drones to map progress since the devastating earthquakes in Nepal in 2015.

Following the devastation of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, Australian operator Heliwest used Lockheed Martin Indago small unmanned aerial system (UAS) to collected imagery of the damage.

Following the devastation of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, Australian operator Heliwest used Lockheed Martin Indago small unmanned aerial system (UAS) to collected imagery of the damage.

Challenges and considerations for the use of drones for disaster response
When introducing a piece of technology for a new function, or into a different industry, working through challenges and unanswered questions is expected, and the use of UAVs in disaster response is no exception.

The first challenge for the use of UAVs is the removal of human interaction when it comes to responding to a disaster. Can information collected by drones truly assess the needs of the people on the ground? Is it possible for aid and supplies to be distributed evenly and without discrimination if there is no human presence? Although the technology of drones is effective, it cannot replace the context-specific understanding only obtained through human interaction. Striking the right combination of computer and technological capabilities, with the logic and decision-making abilities of humans is a challenge to overcome.

In addition to this, drones are usually attributed to military operations, and communities may assume they are being used for covert operations or collecting information for alternative uses. The presence of people to promote participatory processes around the use of drones in a civilian context is required.

Linked to the issues of unmanned operations of disaster relief is the ethical concerns surrounding data collection. As UAVs collect information on a large scale, there need to be standards and procedures created for the assessment of how data is used, and how it is protected. This will also alleviate community concerns around information sharing.

A significant road block to the timely deployment of drones in the aftermath of natural disasters is obtaining approval from national authorities who control the airspace, customs and laws which impact humanitarian operations. Using the United States as one example, the use of drones for disaster relief is limited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who require users to obtain a certain type of “Certificate of Authorisation”, a special airworthiness certificate, or be an UAV official test site participant. Not only this, but UAVs must be able to meet certain requirements and registration for hobby and non-hobby use of these aircrafts.

At the moment, even companies with special exemptions from the FAA cannot quickly respond to disasters because of the challenges they face with the process around the “Certificate of Authorisation”. “This process may take up to 60 days, and if left unchanged would further delay the use of drones to collect aerial data for disaster response efforts” (“Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations“, April 2015, p. 5).

Workers of the British NGO Serve On, working with the Department for International Development (DFID), use a drone in the town of Chautara, Nepal, badly affected by the earthquake (Photo: Jessica Lea / DFID).

Workers of the British NGO Serve On, working with the Department for International Development (DFID), use a drone in the town of Chautara, Nepal, badly affected by the earthquake (Photo: Jessica Lea / DFID).

Legislative, regulatory and privacy concerns need to be addressed around the use of UAVs in special circumstances such as natural disasters. Without the review of national and international mechanisms, the ability for UAVs to effectively be used in disaster response situations will not be progressed. A few recommendations are offered here for future consideration:

  • Developing an international code of conduct on the use of drones in disaster response. As of yet, a current code of conduct does not proscribe specific behaviours or structures, but only sets in place standards for use;
  • Developing an emergency “Certificate of Authorisation” process for humanitarian organisations for the use of UAVs in disaster response operations. Strengthen efforts already in motion to shape the policies of nations to provide exemptions and approval processes on the use of drones in humanitarian contexts;
  • In line with the SDGs, states and humanitarian organisations must work together to further develop UAV technology, involving organisations in the testing phase of technologies and connecting local communities to the use of these technologies;
  • The use of drones in disaster relief efforts must be transparent and open with the communities they are assisting. Communities should be asked for their consent, and be aware of their flights and information on the data they will be collecting;
  • The use of UAV technology in disaster response is still in its infancy. A collection of evidence-based practice and examples should be collected and documented to test and evaluate the outcomes of their use in these operations. Strong evidence is required for the promotion of this technology in humanitarian contexts.
This entry was posted in Drones, English, Sandra Ivanov.

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