Drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are remarkable pieces of technology.
They are incredibly nimble, allowing them to fly around obstacles and reach precise destinations. They can be equipped with high-definition video cameras to give operators a live look at formerly inaccessible areas. They are relatively small and lightweight compared to other aircraft, making them easy to transport and minimizing the space needed for launch and landing.
All of these factors make UAVs an incredible resource on construction sites, where they’ve been used for some time to capture as-built photographic documentation. However, the same factors also make drones the perfect tool for disaster relief.
Despite what you may believe, you don’t need special disaster relief drones to participate in humanitarian efforts. The same aircraft that are used for construction documentation or even recreation can sometimes be used to support various relief operations.
Let’s take a look at a few of the ways UAVs are being used to assist with disaster relief.
Search and Rescue
After a natural disaster like an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane, people are often trapped in rubble or in other areas that are difficult for ground crews to access.
In the past, helicopters and even satellites have been used to help locate survivors. But helicopters are costly to fly and very dangerous during times of rough weather, and satellites can be thwarted by cloud cover.
According to Patrick Meier, founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, “In contrast, UAVs can capture aerial imagery at a far higher resolution, more quickly and at much lower cost.”
Flying a camera-equipped drone over an affected area, a pilot can spot people in distress and notify rescue crews of their location. This is especially helpful for finding isolated individuals who are far from main transportation routes.
When roads are blocked or damaged during a disaster, it becomes a challenge for aid workers to deliver much-needed supplies to people in need.
Thankfully, some drones can be used to carry packages to inaccessible areas. There is a limit to the weight and size of these packages, but many drones are powerful enough to carry items like ropes, life vests, medicine, food, and water to survivors.
Communication is vital to organizing relief efforts and connecting survivors with their loved ones. Unfortunately, cell and radio towers are sometimes damaged during natural disasters, cutting off communication for those who need it most.
In construction, UAVs are used to photographically document high-up areas that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access. In a disaster scenario, they can be used to perform similar tasks.
Instead of sending one crew to the top of a broken cell tower to assess damage, then sending another crew to perform repairs, technicians can save critical time and reduce risk by using drones to assess the damage first. That way, the maintenance team can identify the issue and determine what parts and tools they’ll need to get the tower up and running before a human climbs the first rung of the ladder.
After the initial search and rescue phase of a relief operation is complete, the process of assessing damage begins. Roads, bridges, power lines, and other critical infrastructure need to be evaluated before repairs can begin.
Damage surveys are important for two major reasons. First, they help aid organizations determine which areas to prioritize among their limited resources. Second, they help individuals and cities determine the value of damaged areas so they can file accurate insurance claims and begin receiving the funds they need to try and return to normal.
Aid groups like the American Red Cross have already begun using drones for disaster surveying, testing the technology after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017. Using a drone with an advanced camera, Red Cross workers were able to gain miles of visibility from a vantage point of 400 feet. By tethering the drone to a generator, they were able to keep it in the air for an extended period of time.
In the future, owners of industrial drones might find themselves in a similar position to boat owners who live near areas affected by major floods. By transporting their drones to disaster sites and coordinating with aid organizations, volunteer operators will be able to assist in disaster relief in massive ways, saving lives, money, and time in the process.