Aid (Not Death) from Above: Drones for Disaster Relief

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/20/2013 09:46:00 AM
Some of these things don't come with missiles but with goodwill
The American habit of using drones on supposed "terrorist" targets that frequently results in killing civilians instead--"collateral damage"--has outraged a significant part of the civilized world. Former US President Jimmy Carter criticizes their use as a gross human rights violation. Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly only yesterday passed a resolution aimed at limiting their use as erstwhile American allies in the global war on terror alike Afghanistan and Pakistan have sought to limit myriad incursions in their airspace for the purpose of raining death from the skies.

Despite the quite frankly horrid purposes the Yanks use them for, drones are a neutral technology that can be used for good or ill. An unmanned aircraft is merely in the hands of those controlling it, no? Somewhat encouragingly, a former student of mine has written an interesting article for Devex--the website for development professionals--discussing how drones may be used for disaster relief instead. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan devastating large swathes of the Philippines, this technology has been used with some success in the leveled city of Tacloban:
More than a month after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, operations on the ground remain in the relief and response phase instead of rehabilitation and recovery, with several areas still unreached by aid groups and comprehensive damage assessment still unfinished. To address these needs, several NGOs on the ground in Tacloban, the “ground zero” of the catastrophe, have been using unmanned aerial vehicles to further improve their operations — something they hope would be a standard in disaster risk reduction efforts in the future.

But can drones truly become standard operation procedure in humanitarian crises? Experts consulted by Devex believe so, although they do admit mass use of these devices will have to overcome serious challenges, like their relatively high price [elsewhere in the article it says the tab runs to $55,000 for each operating Huginn X-1] and legal issues over privacy and sovereignty rights...

In Tacloban, Danish firm Danoffice IT, which has been providing drones to U.N. agencies and several NGOs involved in the relief and response operations, said faster disaster assessment means faster disaster response, which, ultimately, saves lives. “The idea is that you have a drone and you deploy it quickly to have an assessment and overview immediately. It means that first, you save some time. After a disaster, time is very important because time has a link to life,” Denis Kerlero De Rosbo, Danoffice IT corporate social responsibility and marketing head, told Devex. “If you move quicker, you will save more lives and resources."
How, then, can drones be used to assist disaster relief?
1. Immediate assessment.

The first few hours after disasters are the most crucial moments for disaster response, particularly in search and rescue operations. But poor assessment of the affected areas can significantly reduce the effectiveness of these operations and even endanger aid workers.

Drones can be deployed for immediate assessment of disaster situations, providing detailed information to first-responders like local governments and humanitarian groups. Information is key to disaster response and mobilization.

2. Strategic planning.

Following the initial assessment phase, the information gathered will prove helpful in crafting an effective strategic plan in responding to disasters.

Scores of international aid groups and partner governments have continually extended their help to the country given the scale of devastation Haiyan brought — including the information gathered by the drones in the plans will make relief and response operations more effective.

3. Search and rescue operations.

A month after the onslaught of Haiyan, dead bodies are still being recovered in disaster areas, with some fearing a number of these people died days after the storm hit due to lack of aid.

The Huginn X1 drone, according to De Rosbo, is equipped with high-definition video and is capable of providing a live feed for the controller, making assessment and response real-time. The device can also produce thermal images, essential for finding people alive during the search and rescue operations.

4. Protecting aid workers.

Another very important area where drones can be very useful in disaster response is ensuring the security and safety of aid workers.

Humanitarians deployed on the ground are not immune to the kinds of hazards disaster victims face. They are humans too, and susceptible to these threats...Days after the storm, reports of looting in disaster areas were rampant due to hunger and desperation, while a number of local rebel groups wreaked havoc in the ravaged communities. Drones can help identify these threats.
More information on the Philippine operation is available from the site of application provider Danoffice IT. (Alike the drone manufacturer, it's obviously Danish.) It's very interesting stuff. Going forward, using drones for disaster relief may help give them a good name elsewhere in the developing world.