Drone-Assisted Disaster Response

Sep 19, 2016

Disaster response requires managing recovery operations aimed at reducing the impacts of disasters. A disaster site might contain several lingering threats, including dangerous chemicals, toxic materials, precarious rubble, human remains, and may still be in the throes of extreme conditions such as wildfires, floods, hurricanes, sink-holes, tornadoes, and winter storms.

Last year, California wildfires spread across an area of 65,000 acres, killing seven civilians and two firefighters, and destroying many buildings. Until now emergency equipment, facilities, and human resources were the only tools available to battle the effects of such hazards.

Today, advances in technology have enabled the development of drone-assisted disaster response. SAR is one example of its many uses. “The provision of timely surveillance over broad areas is critical for successful search and rescue operations,” says Chris Day, Head of Capability Engineering at Schiebel, a Vienna-based mine-detector and UAV company.

The Benefit of Using Drones for Disaster Response
The drone, or Unmanned Airborne System (UAS), is an aerial vehicle without a pilot. Some Unmanned Air Systems offer higher persistence or endurance than many equivalent manned systems. High definition imagery is generated without any need for personnel in the air, which not only saves resources but also reduces risks to a minimum. Non-governmental organizations, disaster-relief personnel, and first responders get a compelling aerial perspective that enables them to more effectively and efficiently deploy and coordinate resources immediately.

An unmanned helicopter, for example with its small logistics footprint, allows deployment from austere operation sites, closer to where the need is and where operation of manned assets would be considerably more difficult to deploy.

Some drones have the advantage of a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) system. The VTOL UAS needs no prepared area or supporting launch or recovery equipment. It operates in day or night, under adverse weather conditions, with a beyond line-of-sight capability out to 200 km, both on land and at sea. The S-100 navigates via pre-programmed GPS waypoints or is operated with a pilot control unit.

In most cases, missions are planned and controlled via  simple point-and-click user interface.

In the case of the Schiebel UAS, high definition payload imagery is transmitted to the control station in real-time. “Using ‘fly-by-wire’ technology controlled by a triple-redundant flight computer, the UAS can complete its mission automatically,” notes Day. Imagery turrets provide rescue teams with real-time daylight and infrared video which precisely locates and offers relief to persons in emergency situations.

Researchers have investigated the role of drones in assisting large-scale disaster-relief operations in areas affected by tragedies and hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, airplane crashes, and terrorist attacks. The primary concerns for relief workers, are safety and the race against time, as the initial 72-hours are critical for locating and rescuing survivors. When heat sensors, infrared cameras, microphones, and heartbeat detectors are attached to the drones, rescue operations can be conducted quickly, safely and efficiently.

Scientists have been conducting experi­ments to perform large-scale disaster-relief operations by acquiring images through drones. A single drone flight over an inflicted area has the potential to generate a significant amount of data, which can be used in multiple ways. “The CAMCOPTER S-100 can be fitted with a wide variety of payloads, tailored to meet specific requirements, such as LiDAR radars for 3D scanning after earthquakes, for example,” explains Day. “3D rendered images can be produced using conventional video that is processed on the ground to provide photorealistic 3D images. An alternative method uses a LiDAR that can provide near real-time, geographically, high accuracy (non-photo) 3D models. Software packages are available that allow both LiDAR point cloud data and conventional video to be combined to provide high accuracy, photorealistic 3D rendered images. The processing behind this takes several minutes to produce good results.”

Canadian relief teams manoeuvred drones over earthquake-hit areas of Nepal in 2015 to map the disaster areas and search for survivors. Thousands of high-resolution images and videos with higher levels of detail than a satellite image were obtained to support relief operations. Through photographs and videos, the rescue teams were able to identify and locate destroyed buildings, houses, and roads. Hence, reconstructing and mapping disaster sites are major applications of drones.

Tactical and Strategic Drones
Vince Ambrosia, a research scientist at NASA-Ames research center, says, “If you break UAS into two class sizes, they can be used to support a myriad of operations. Larger, higher operational altitude and longer duration platforms, with imaging sensors on board, can provide longer-term, strategic, and persistent observations for up to 24-hours, well beyond the endurance of a manned platform. This would allow persistent monitoring of evolving events and hazards, rather than snap-shots-in-time provided by short-endurance platforms.”

A UAV is an ideal platform from which to collect and measure atmospheric samples, whether they be ­Chemical, Biological or Radiological. It can accurately perform 3-dimensional mapping to provide valuable information for geographers, resource extraction companies, infrastructure inspectors, search managers, and disaster response teams.

Furthermore, small UAS, especially those that do not require a fixed runway for launch and recovery, can play a critical role in ‘tactical’ observations over small areas with higher spatial resolution observation capabilities. Day adds, “The S-100 is an ideal platform from which to collect and measure atmospheric samples, whether they be Chemical, Biological or Radiological (CBR). It can accurately perform 3-dimensional mapping to provide valuable information for geographers, resource extraction companies, infrastructure planners and inspectors, as well as disaster response organizations.” Drones have been an indispensable tool in the global battle against contraband, drug, human or arms trafficking and in the fight against organized crime. It is also an excellent instrument for peace-keeping operations and border control.

Drone Assistance for Fighting Fires
Drones have been used to assist in the recovery and relief operations for wildfires. In fact, the Canadian government flew drones over fire-ravaged Alberta to explore the root cause of the recent wildfires that have disturbed the lives of thousands of Canadians. Infrared, ultraviolet, and traditional optical cameras were attached to the UAS to determine the hottest point of the fire, and to find its source, depending upon different factors, like time and wind.  The relief operations following brushfires usually involve utility restoration, toxic material cleaning or disposal, and rescue. Drones can effectively be used to collect a large amount of data, to plan and prepare for the recovery operations in such situations. Furthermore, the risks faced by the firefighters are also reduced, if they are aware of the details of the burned area.

Schiebel Camcopter S-100 with L-3 WESCAM turret.

Multi-spectral and multi-sensor Electro-optical Infra-red (EO IR) imaging and targeting sensor systems can be designed for airborne, ground and sea-based ­missions. L-3 WESCAM’s sensor systems are used by military, homeland ­security and law enforcement agencies worldwide. L-3 WESCAM’s MX-Series of EO/IR turrets range in size from 8-25 inches in diameter. Ideal for low-level ­tactical missions or long-range covert surveillance missions, L-3 WESCAM has a solution for today’s leading UAV ­platforms.

Pablo Chamoso Santos, an expert in the field of Robotics, says, “Any aerial image can be really useful for firemen on the ground. They can see the fire direction or the scale of the disaster. New or undetected problems can also be identified from the drone perspective.”

Ambrosia agrees: "There is a great deal of interest in the use of UAS systems to support wildfire management. The issues right now that are slowing the integration of UAS into firefighting operations are primarily airspace management, regulations, and decisions about owning, operating, and contracting services for such data collection methods.  The agencies are moving conservatively to make sure that they are well prepared for understanding the benefits of UAS and the disadvantages of the platforms, so they can make prudent decisions on when and how to maximize the effectiveness of this new tool in the firefighting arsenal.” Day adds, “Nowadays, the most important limitations are not of technological but of legal nature: A great variety of civil applications, especially in the field of search and rescue, are already technically possible, but still lack the authorities’ admission.”

Scientists are exploring the possibility of developing safe firefighting UAS; however, the technology is still in its early phase. Firefighting agencies believe that UAS is a highly beneficial tool in four cases. “First of all,” Ambrosia says, “UAS are useful during the process of conducting ‘fire perimeter mapping’ during operational hours when potential airspace interference can be minimized. Secondly, UAS can serve as a forward observation platform for Hot Shot crews in remote locations and update rescue team workers with situational awareness of their working environment and the fire areas, escape routes, and safety zones, etc. Thirdly, Small UAS can be used for small hot spot detections by wildfire Mop-Up teams after the fire has been contained and is in transition to a rehabilitation phase.”

Another area of interest in small UAS use for wildfire events is as a communications relay platform to ‘connect’ the Incident Command Center with ‘remote’ crew who may be in radio communication ‘shadow’ areas (caused by terrain) or too great a distance for line-of-sight communications.  “Small UAS, carrying radio repeater electronics, have been demonstrated to be an effective tool for allowing communications among field crew and a command center,” explains Ambrosia.  “This is an interesting platform use that should prove cost-effective and necessary for crew safety when out of reach of standard communications methods.”

Nowadays, the most important limitations are not of technological but of legal nature: A great variety of civil applications, especially in the field of search and rescue, are already technically possible, but still lack the authorities’ admission.”

High Hopes for the Future
Scientists and researchers have high hopes for a future in which frontline responders will have a complete picture of a catastrophic area within a few minutes after the hazard strikes. An updated view of the affected area, identifying open roads, accessible hospitals, critical buildings, live streams of the injured survivors, and potential hazards in rescue operations, can be used to construct a map of the area.  A drone fleet that can stay in the air for the first 24-72 hours can be a highly efficient tool for emergency management. “Technological advances useful for a great variety of civil UAV applications have been made over the last years and possibilities will continue to grow,” says Day. “As soon as the airspace management for civil unmanned air vehicles improves and therefore the risk of investing in this sector reduces, the market for RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) is expected to expand dramatically.” Ultimately, disaster drones are expected to revolutionize the future of humanitarian relief.

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychologist with an interest in the psychology behind frontline work.