Using Drones for Good, Part 4: Disaster response

Last updated on

September 18, 2018


In the three previous parts of our ‘using drones for good’ series, we looked at how drones are helping to save our oceans, aid the emergency services and prevent a major environmental disaster. In part 4, we are going to look at how drones can be used to support disaster relief efforts.

Drones have the potential to transform how disaster response is delivered by relief agencies, first responders and military personnel. The unique capabilities of drones mean they can provide vital services across all stages of the disaster relief response effort, from the initial assessment through to the planning stage and finally the delivery stage.

So as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Eastern Seaboard of America, let’s have a look at some real-world examples of how drones have been deployed to support disaster relief efforts across the world.

Air Navigation Order 2018

Responding to Hurricane Irma

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage across Florida and parts of the Caribbean. The storm was one of the most damaging hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland in more than a decade and was estimated to have caused up to $18 billion in damage.

The storm left thousands of people homeless and many more without power and basic services. A disaster on this scale stretches emergency services to the limit as first responders and service providers struggle to cope with the volume of calls. But during Irma, hurricane response changed forever, because drones were deployed for the first time to help rescuers assess infrastructure damage and organise repairs.

Tampa, Florida based drone services company FLYMOTION was one of the first drone teams to be allowed to deploy drones across the area. Once permission was granted by the FAA they immediately began providing end-to-end drone solutions across the disaster area to assist a number of agencies to conduct emergency operations.

At the height of the operation, FLYMOTION had 20 teams on the ground, providing support to law enforcement, special operations, the U.S. Coast Guard and first responders. Throughout the recovery process, the team conducted 650 missions and covered over 300+ miles of hurricane-damaged terrain.

A number of drones and sensors were used during the relief effort, but the most popular drone was the DJI M200. This was fitted with a range of sensors and imaging equipment, including thermal imaging and long-range zoom cameras. The rugged M200 is ideal for such operations due to its quick deployment capability and the ability to fly in adverse weather conditions.

You may also be interested in: LiDAR sensors for drones: the top 5 options

Fighting wildfires in California

Wildfires can start without warning and spread quickly, destroying everything that stands in their way. Last October, 170 wildfires spread across 245,000 acres in Northern California, destroying 8,900 structures in the process. In July of this year, another wildfire caused even more damage, burning more than 432,000 acres.

Traditionally, fighting wildfires is a treacherous business with firefighters having to work around the clock on the ground in collaboration with water tankers. Because wildfires spread so quickly, the situation would often evolve significantly in the time required to arrange a drop from a tanker.

To solve the problem, the California Air National Guard is deploying drones to keep track of how wildfires are spreading in real time. Drones equipped with Lidar are being used to create 3D maps of the affected area. The maps show everything from trees to power lines and property, which helps firefighters plan how they tackle the blaze.

The data is collected in real time and fed to a cloud-based intelligence program which creates 3D maps giving incident commanders the information they need to prevent the spread of the fire. This information can then be fed to air tanker crews who can use it to target the most critical areas of the fire.

The drones can also be used to help people in distress by dropping vital life-saving equipment such as torches, cell phones or radios to residents trapped by the flames. This multi-role ability has proved invaluable in helping to save the lives of hundreds of people who would otherwise have been unable to ask for help.

Earthquake response in Mexico

In September 2017, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City left large parts of the city in chaos. A plan needed to be formulated quickly to help provide support for those people most in need. To do this effectively, information was required on the hardest hit areas; but how do you conceptualize accurate information across five hundred acres of urban landscape?

Drones provided the answer. DroneSky, a mapping company based in Mexico City, used DroneDeploy’s cloud-based mapping platform to create highly accurate real-time 3D maps of the most affected areas. This gave emergency response teams a clear picture of the damage and showed them where emergency teams needed to be deployed.

During the exercise, DroneSky used a DJI Phantom 4 to map the Xochimilco district, one of the worst affected areas. With just eight flights, they created a 3D map of the entire district, highlighting the buildings which had suffered the most damage and were in danger of collapse.

But the work of DroneSky didn’t stop once the relief effort was over. Pablo Germenos, one of the founders of DroneSky, is also an architecture student at Universidad Iberoamericana.

After seeing the devastation firsthand he mobilized a group of architecture students to redesign eight major buildings destroyed by the quake. The team used 3D point clouds, orthomosaic maps and elevation models created by DroneDeploy’s software as baselines for the rebuilding project.

Drones are the future

These examples highlight how drones are becoming indispensable for disaster relief efforts around the world. They help rescue teams across multiple agencies coordinate their response more effectively, allow assets to be deployed where they are needed most and can be used to help rebuild infrastructure once the relief effort is over.

If you would like to know more about how drones can be used to aid disaster relief or would like to know how drones can benefit your business, contact the drone experts at COPTRZ. As the largest supplier of DJI commercial drones in the UK, and one of the leading CAA approved training providers, our experts can give you the advice you need to deploy drones safely and effectively in your business.

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