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Drones Are Ready to Take on Bigger Roles in Natural Disasters

Small camera-equipped drone ©Akhil Yerabati/Unsplash
Small camera-equipped drone. ©Akhil Yerabati/Unsplash

If you think of a drone as a toy or as a potential pizza-delivery method of the future, you’re not alone.

Today, these small, unmanned flying devices are used for a wide range of functions, including tracking the growth of agricultural crops, monitoring areas to detect security breaches, and delivering products right where they are needed, such as dropping off a hammer at a construction site.

They are also playing an increasing role in preventing natural disasters and in response and recovery efforts following disasters. They are particularly useful in these emergencies because they can track and send back images of what is happening in places rescuers cannot access.

The Dawn of Drone Disaster Aid

One of the first instances of drones being used to offer aid after a natural disaster struck was only sixteen years ago, after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in the United States.

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ©Mark Moran, NOAA/Wikimedia Commons
Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. ©Mark Moran, NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

In September 2005, Pearlington, Mississippi, USA, sweltered in the heat, its streets were eerily silent. The residents who had already fled the area feared for their neighbors who might still be trapped by the terrifying high waters Hurricane Katrina had left behind.

Drones were perfect to assess the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because they could easily fly through inaccessible spaces and send back images the entire time, giving responders insight at the ground level.

Volunteers searching door-to-door were taken aback by the sight of a very small helicopter, almost a toy, flying low between houses. The helicopter seemed to have a mind of its own, darting down to window level before flying over rooftops.

After a two-hour tour, the helicopter drone and a second, overhead drone were able to report that no one remained trapped and that the floodwaters from the cresting Pearl River did not pose an additional threat. The drones were perfect for the Pearlington mission because they could easily fly through inaccessible spaces and send back images the entire time, giving responders insight at the ground level.

In this case, the drones were used to help with search and rescue missions. In addition to showing empty streets and houses, the video imagery from the craft also helped responders plan their searches and avoid the hazards depicted in the footage.

Disasters kill about 60,000 people each year around the world and affect 200 million, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). Today’s disaster management systems mostly rely on images taken from satellite or a manned aircraft for aerial images that help with disaster response and prevention.

Infrared image of wildfire hotspots from drone camera.   ©BLM/Wikimedia Commons
Infrared image of wildfire hotspots from drone camera. ©BLM/Wikimedia Commons

Much work has been done over the past twenty years to put flying, remote-controlled vehicles to work on tasks that require surveillance by air—including preparing for natural and manmade disasters. However, drone use for these purposes is still in its infancy.

Scientists generally agree that small, inexpensive aerial drones that carry cameras as well as sensors that serve as heat detectors seem like a natural fit for emergency response efforts. They are able to provide up-to-the-minute feedback on disaster sites and to compare the sites with maps of the area taken before the event struck. And they are relatively inexpensive to operate, certainly much less expensive than aircraft flown by a pilot in the cockpit.

Since the Katrina disaster, many humanitarian response groups have been using drone technology to identify and monitor high-risk areas, find evacuation routes, assess the severity and the extent of the damage, monitor refugee camps, and even take video and photographs for their group’s public-relations campaigns, according to the American Red Cross.

Most of the drones used for disaster mitigation are easily purchased for less than $2000, don’t require special skills to operate, and are fairly reliable.

Most of the drones used for disaster mitigation and recovery are the type easily purchased at a store: small drones with four propellers. The consumer drones often cost less than $2,000, don’t require special skills to operate, and, according to the Red Cross, are fairly reliable.

Some drones carry high-resolution cameras as well as global position system (GPS) receivers that allow the drone to follow flight plans drawn up by responders. Most of these drones assign geographic coordinates to their aerial photographs. The Red Cross says that photos can then be combined using specialized software to create highly accurate maps and three-dimensional models of the affected areas.

All Drone Studies Are Not Equal

For drone flights to be safe and reliable in times of disaster, drone technology needs to be studied under many flying conditions, including high wind, heavy rain, and severe temperature impacts from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides, wildfires, and volcanic eruption.

That is not presently the case, according to a study published by researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada. They found that little research has been done into how effective drones are in those circumstances. They also found differences in the ways drones are studied for these events, which could affect the people who need aid.

Drone research does not often include the deadliest and most expensive catastrophes as well as the hardest-hit areas.

Drone flights must be studied equally across disaster scenarios because drones are a “game changer” for emergency management, according to DroneSense, a company that makes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)s. The aerial images they take help multiple agencies coordinate response and rescue efforts. Drone footage helps detect hotspots within a fire and helps firefighters find the best ways to put out the fire. The images also give all types of responders a play-by-play look at overall disaster management efforts, which they can review to find ways to respond to similar events in the future.

For their survey, the study’s authors examined more than six hundred reports about drones used to map disaster areas and places where disasters could occur. They discovered that 64% of the studies were conducted in high-income countries and territories and 79% of the studies had been performed in rural areas. Additionally, drone research does not often include the deadliest and most expensive catastrophes or the hardest-hit areas.

Most drone studies focus on rural areas ©Erik Odiin/Unsplash
Most drone studies focus on rural areas. ©Erik Odiin/Unsplash

Drone research often does not include the very populations most affected by natural disasters, the authors write, including notably underrepresented urban populations—where people live closer together than in the countryside. In other words, a hurricane can affect more people in a city located along the shoreline than it can in a place where few people reside. Studies on how drones act and what they can do in cities are sparse, the authors say.

While earthquakes, floods, and storms are the natural disasters that cause the most deaths and that affect populations and economies the most, only a small percentage of studies focused on these events: 14% on earthquakes, 18% on floods, and 12% on storms, the authors found. Landslides and other mass movements received the most research attention, with 38% of drone studies focused on them.

This is likely because—despite the name—landslides usually affect a much smaller land area than do other types of natural disasters, the authors say. Because the typical area covered by drone flight is also small, flights over landslides are easier to study.

To add another wrinkle, drones are mostly studied today for ways they can aid during emergencies than for ways to prevent disaster in the first place, the authors find. Prevention includes mapping an area before disaster even strikes.

The reason why low-income and high-income areas are studied differently likely comes down to the ways laws vary across those areas, the authors state. Laws and regulations on how drones can be used and studied need to be in place in areas where scientists want to conduct research, but drone regulations lag in lower-income areas.

“An unpublished October 2020 analysis of 133 low, lower-middle, and upper-middle income countries and territories found that 46% percent lacked drone-related legislation, 7% had extremely restrictive regulations that effectively banned drone use, and 9% outright banned drones,” the study states.

“For comparison, out of 77 high-income countries and territories, 8% lacked drone regulations, 3% effectively banned drone use through restrictive regulations, and 5% outright banned them.”

But the University of Calgary scientists remain hopeful that future studies will be conducted on a more equal basis.

“We suspect that regulations will continue to evolve worldwide and more lower income areas will eventually enact their own frameworks,” they wrote.

WeRobotic Flying Labs Train Users and Help Improve Regulations

Another promising development is the growing network of WeRobotics Flying Labs, independently operated organizations that develop ways drones might be used for disaster and other aid. Members hold workshops and training and help lawmakers develop and improve drone regulation in their areas.

Of the more than thirty Flying Labs, over 85% are located in low, lower-middle, and upper-middle countries and territories, the authors write.

The Flying Labs members know—just as officials throughout the world understand—that drones hold great potential to aid in times of natural disaster. The ways they can help run the spectrum from finding people trapped under rubble to dropping supplies, to mapping a location before an event even occurs.

With laws and regulations expected to put drone studies on a more equal footing in the future, citizens in all parts of the world can expect help from the skies—by helicopter, by airplane, and by drone, in the not-too-distant future.


*Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, MN, who writes frequently about science and engineering topics.


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