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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

Drones and disaster management

When Hurricane Katrina hit the east coast of the USA in 2005, a tiny town called Pearlington was completely cut off by floodwaters. As survivors waited for rescue on their roofs or in small boats, they saw a novel sight: drones buzzing from house to house, looking into windows to check for trapped people.

Sights like this aren’t novel anymore.

When it comes to disaster management, drones are perhaps the most significant development since the invention of the seismograph.

What is disaster management? Why do we need it?

We need disaster management programs because the lives lost during a natural disaster are only the beginning of the story – what comes afterwards is just as challenging. Disasters create populations of people in need of rescue and ongoing care while simultaneously damaging the state’s capacity to rescue them or provide this care. Roads are rendered unusable, people are left homeless and jobless, health services are overwhelmed, and returning to normal life is a long, expensive and difficult process.

Drones have already proved themselves indispensable in facing every one of these challenges.

A drone searches for survivors in Pearlington, Mississippi. Credit: Safety Security Rescue Research Center

Early warning systems and evacuation routes

Early warning systems can save thousands of lives, especially in the case of tsunamis - survival depends on people having enough time to evacuate to high ground, so every second counts.

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, government research found that 35 percent of people in affected areas didn’t hear the public speakers telling them to evacuate. Now, in Sendai, one of the hardest-hit cities, a drone system has been put in place: automated drones fitted with speakers fly up and down an 8km section of the coast broadcasting the evacuation order, while rescue workers can remotely guide people to the safe zones, preventing panic.

It’s equally important to have evacuation plans in place, and drone mapping is the most effective way of getting the data necessary to plan routes.

For example, in Indonesia, a drone-based mapping project carried out in 2017 found that the evacuation routes proposed by the national disaster management agency (BNPB) would take longer than the 11 minutes needed to ensure safety. The data was used to simulate a tsunami and find the most efficient evacuation routes, and the ideal places to build shelters. And in 2021, drones in Mozambique took only a month to map 800 square kilometers, pinpoint places of refuge, and find the quickest ways to escape.

Drone image of New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Credit: U.S. National Archives

Searching for survivors

When people are trapped after an earthquake, 90 percent will survive if found within half an hour. This percentage drops to 81 percent after 24 hours. In other words, the quicker you can find people, the more lives are saved. Drones excel at this: they have no spatial limitations, and they can scan buildings with infrared, heat and multispectral vision. They can even tell is a person is alive or dead, thanks to technology that debuted in the Ecuador earthquake of 2016.

More recently, a massive earthquake hit southeast Turkey. Rescue teams made good use of drones, gaining access to places that would be dangerous on foot, using the thermal camera to look for survivors, and delivering medical aid to isolated people.

View from High Lander Mission Control, Turkey 2023.

Fighting fire

If you were to imagine how drones might combat wildfires, you’d assume that they spray water. In fact, it’s the complete opposite! Drones are fitted with ‘Dragon eggs’, small incendiary orbs that they accurately drop to start controlled burns. These deliberate fires have been used to great effect in California to stop the spread of wildfires by removing the vegetation upon which the blaze feeds. In other places, drone patrols spot small-scale fires, enabling authorities to kill them before they spread.

A drone loaded with Dragon Eggs. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Earthquake mapping

Earthquakes cause such devastation that it’s not always obvious which buildings have been damaged. Drone mapping could be the answer. In 2016, drone map data was used in Kumamoto, Japan to detect buildings that had partially collapsed by comparing building heights with pre-earthquake imaging. The technique showed a 90%+ accuracy rate.

Image taken by drone of earthquake damage in Ofunato, Japan. Credit: Matthew Bradley`

And a 2021 University of Calgary study found that drones can be used to accurately analyze buildings and assess their risk of collapse during an earthquake in the future. Considering that most earthquake-related deaths are cause by building collapsed, this data is vital.

Drones are also able to go to places where people can’t. For example, when the Fukushima nuclear power plant was damaged by the tsunami of 2011, dangerous levels of radiation made it impossible for people to approach. A drone was able to fly above the plant and surveyed the damage, enabling them to confirm that the reactor hadn’t been exposed to the air.

Drone view of the Fukushima plane. Credit: naturalflow, flickr

A new era of disaster management

In the aftermath of a disaster, people need immediate help, and places often become inaccessible. For more than fifteen years, drones have proved themselves during disasters around the world - delivering food, water and medical supplies, collecting and transporting blood samples, giving people information when communications are down, and enable rescue teams to prioritize their activities, saving precious time when every second counts.

Natural disasters have always been a sword handing over the heads of millions, but drones have already greatly multiplied our power to prepare for disasters, to mitigate the destruction and loss of life, and to provide more effective relief. For the first time in history, we can see a future where we’re no longer at the mercy of natural forces - and that's pretty amazing.

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