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Can drones speed up disaster relief?

Can unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) make disaster relief operations faster and more effective? Red Cross wants to find out.

Wednesday November 30, 2016

Vanuatu by helicopter
Damage from Cyclone Pam, shot from a helicopter. Drones can get much closer, at times and in places helicopters cannot access. Photo: IFRC/Madeline Wilson

When Cyclone Pam swept through Vanuatu on 13 March 2015, the tiny islands north of Efate suffered the most and waited the longest for help to arrive.

Directly in the monster cyclone's path, entire homes on these islands simply vanished, villages were left in ruins, and crops torn from the ground.  

With telecommunication networks down, no one outside the islands even knew what had happened.  

By 17 March, aerial surveys were commissioned for areas field teams could not yet reach. Images taken by Australian Defence Force flights were starting to reveal a picture of destruction. Two villages on Paama Island appeared in ruin. Tanna Island looked 'simply flattened'. People could be seen signalling for help on Tongoa Island.  

Next, assessment teams had to charter boats and helicopters to reach each island. Each team had to survey, photograph and assess the extent of the damage and need, before travelling back to Vila. Only then could the response teams deploy their limited resources to best effect. 

These delays mean that people on remote islands could wait for weeks for something as simple as a tarpaulin to keep out the rain.  

What if there was a faster way to get assessment data from remote locations? Could unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones) be the answer?

"We know many Pacific islands are especially vulnerable because of their geographic isolation," says Peter Walton of Australian Red Cross.

"When these islands are hit by disasters, our goal is to discover exactly what has happened as soon as possible, so the right aid arrives faster."  

UAVs can reach some remote areas than assessment teams travelling by boat, car or foot. The aerial imagery shot by UAVs is accurately geo-tagged, making it possible to stich multiple images together to create large, detailed maps. This is much harder to do with images shot by planes, which often lack the necessary GPS data.  

Aerial surveys can also be difficult when there is low cloud cover," Peter explains. "Whereas UAVs offer the opportunity to conduct surveillance at lower levels, in areas and at times where planes and helicopters cannot be used."  

Red Cross has teamed up with Dr Patrick Meier, the global expert in humanitarian technology and innovation, to research the use of drones in disaster management.  

Dr Meier and his team worked with the World Bank in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam, using UAVs to carry out aerial surveys of buildings, to complement the bank's field-based disaster damage assessments.  

He's now interested in using robotics technology in disaster risk reduction, preparation, recovery and reconstruction.  

"I'm very pleased to be working with such a forward-thinking team at Australian Red Cross," Dr Meier says.  

"This unique research effort will critically assess how robotics can improve humanitarian outcomes in the Pacific and beyond. The results will inform both policy and operational decisions so we can move forward from research to practice, and practice to impact."  

Many questions remain about the viability of UAVs in the Pacific. Can they cover the wide areas needed? Can they drop cargo, like relief items? What are the regulatory requirements for using drones in Pacific nations' airspace?  

"We're looking for evidence, especially from the Pacific," explains Peter Walton.  

"If anyone has used UAVs in a similar fashion, or explored their use in the Pacific, please get in touch with Dr Meier. Red Cross would love to hear about your experience.  

"It could lead to smarter disaster risk assessments, faster responses and, ultimately, more lives saved."  

Contact Red Cross to enquire about or contribute to the UAV research.