On April 25 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal and nearby parts of India, China, and Bangladesh, killing more than 8,000 people and displacing nearly half a million more.
Humanitarian organisations were quick to respond, but the country’s inhospitable terrain coupled with its fragile power, transport and energy infrastructure have posed huge challenges to relief efforts.
A critical first step following a natural disaster is undertaking a damage assessment. This gives responders an accurate picture of what can be repaired, what needs to be replaced and who needs relief as well as an accurate idea of the cost – essential for cost benefit analyses of where limited resources are best directed.
Traditionally such assessments have required time consuming surveys by teams on the ground, and while these still take place, in the last two decades these have been supplemented with satellite imagery, which allows rapid analysis of large geographical areas and helps humanitarian organisations quickly ascertain the scale of the damage.
Now the emerging technology of drones is promising a new revolution in disaster relief by offering an even faster, more accurate and more responsive way of assessing the situation on the ground. The man at the forefront of this revolution is Patrick Meier, founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators).
“The UN rapid damage assessment survey takes two weeks, not because it’s slow, but because it takes that much time. It’s very, very time-consuming and labour intensive to do all these field surveys,” he says.
“So of course if you can send a UAV up and in one hour it covers 10km2 at very high resolution and you can do an initial assessment of the disaster damage that’s a very, very good thing. If nothing else it could help you prioritise the areas to do field surveys.”
A key advantage that drones have over satellites is the ability to capture oblique imagery as well as birds-eye views, which as well as providing an extra perspective to assess the damage also allows the creation of 3D models that give a more comprehensive picture of the damage to individual structures.
On top of that they have the ability to deploy rapidly, much higher resolution imagery and the ability to swap out cameras for thermal sensors or LIDAR – technology that bounces laser light off objects to build up a picture of the surroundings in a similar way to radar.
The idea of using UAV’s for disaster damage assessment is no eureka moment though – surveying is one of the technology’s strongest applications. But as with any new technology that cuts across traditional boundaries, ensuring its capabilities are deployed effectively, efficiently and responsibly is the major challenge.
Meier became only too aware of this challenge working in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. A lack of guidelines for how UAV’s should be used in a humanitarian setting coupled with poor communication between operators, humanitarian organisations and the authorities persuaded him there was a need for coordination.
So in 2013 UAViators was born. In the intervening years a Code of Conduct for humanitarian drone use has been drawn up with input from humanitarian professionals, UAV pilots and drone experts. The network now has a roster of roughly 1,000 UAV pilots across more than 70 countries that can be drawn upon when disaster strikes.
In Nepal, there are currently 10 UAV teams liaising with Meier and a dedicated page on the UAViators website details each team’s contact information, what drone technology they’re using and what imagery they are able to capture. A tasking section details the imagery that humanitarian organisations are looking for and the website also includes details of local regulations, relevant contacts at the local authorities and advice on how to licence, share and format imagery.
“When a disaster happens we can quickly identify which teams are on site and also which teams are looking to deploy and start connecting them as soon as possible so they know about each other both from a safety perspective and also an efficiency perspective,” says Meier.
“It also means the humanitarian organisations have one point of contact for their request for imagery, their questions, their concerns, comments, whatever. And the same is true with the UAVs.”
Coordinating so many teams all with very different missions and capabilities is a difficult task in itself, but Meier’s work has not been made easier by the collapse of Nepal’s communication infrastructure.
Rather than travel to Nepal he decided to remain at his base at the Qatar Computing Research Institute where he was guaranteed high speed internet and phone connectivity, but with many teams only in sporadic communication coordinating them has proven tough. With many struggling to access the UAViators website Meier has resorted to sending out a plain text email with all of the information on the website along with regular updates several times a day.
The country also has no formal regulations on the use of drones as of yet, which has made applying for permission to fly particularly difficult for operators. Meier eventually managed to track down two bureaus within the civil aviation authority that UAV teams can approach to get permission, but no sooner had he done so than the authorities issued a blanket ban on drone flights following reckless behaviour by some journalists using drones to capture footage of the devastation.
“The government is now very wary of aerial images being shared and videos being shared of the damage. They don’t want this to leave the country, they don’t want it to be posted online. I think they feel very exposed,” says Meier.
Several of the teams have managed to reapply for permission to operate, especially now that most of the demand for imagery is in more isolated areas with fewer concerns around shared airspace, but trying to play by the rules in a situation as chaotic as the one in Nepal has proven tough.
“It’s the Wild West and the best we can do with the network is to self-organise as professionally as possible and make sure we hold ourselves accountable to own best practices and standards. It’s a huge, huge mess,” Meier says.
Regardless, Meier has been buoyed by the progress since Typhoon Haiyan. The network now has the structures and procedures in place to effectively coordinate a large number of teams. The organisation is now also linked in with another of Meier’s projects, the Digital Humanitarian Network, which crowdsources the analysis of drone imagery from a pool of volunteers around the world.
Meier is even beginning to look beyond the more established uses for drones in disasters to applications such as providing mobile 3G, 4G and WiFi connectivity. He has even been approached by teams who want to carry out payload delivery, but despite their good intentions he is wary. “I need a credible strong partner on ground,” he says. “They are very green in this space and we can’t afford an accident with the first use case.”
So while progress has been made there is still much to be done and Meier is more than aware that creating precedents for the use of a disruptive technology in a setting as messy as disaster relief is going to be a long road.
“There are still some huge, huge challenges,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the chaos, reduce the noise, and establish professional ways to do this so you don’t get a government backlash. It’s still early days, but all I can say is thank goodness we actually have a Humanitarian UAV Network.”