Guest Blog: The role of drones in disaster response – insights from GlobalMedic’s RescUAV Program

Guest Blog: The role of drones in disaster response – insights from GlobalMedic’s RescUAV Program

The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, known as GlobalMedic, is a Canadian nonprofit organization that has provided disaster relief and life-saving humanitarian aid since 2002, and is a long-standing Airlink partner. GlobalMedic’s RescUAV Program uses sophisticated technology to collect important information fast following a disaster.

At the end of 2021, Airlink supported flights for a team of pilots from their RescUAV Program to fly to Mozambique to support a study hosted by World Food Programme Mozambique, and funded by the European Union, on using drones and artificial intelligence to speed up search and rescue operations after a disaster.

By working with Airlink, nonprofit organizations like GlobalMedic can do more, reach more people in need, and even devote extra time to disaster training and preparedness exercises.

In this week’s blog, Jowett Wong, GlobalMedic’s Rapid Response Team Leader, and one of the pilots supported by Airlink, discusses the advantages, hurdles, and lessons learned surrounding the use of UAVs in disaster response.

My name is Jowett Wong and I am a Rapid Response Team Leader with GlobalMedic that responds to disasters internationally and domestically. I help run GlobalMedic’s emergency unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program, RescUAV. My background is in Emergency Management and Disaster Planning, urban search and rescue and as a K9 search and rescue handler. I was employed by my local municipality as an Emergency Program Specialist where I learned to fly UAVs. In my time with GlobalMedic I’ve responded to multiple disasters. Each time I leave wishing I had done more or wanting to stay longer to help. The need for assistance is always overwhelming.

UAVs are an invaluable tool in disaster response

The GlobalMedic RescUAV program uses commercially available off-the-shelf enterprise drones. Our main fleet of drones consists of quadcopters of varying sizes. UAVs offer emergency responders and decision-makers almost real-time situational awareness. UAVs are able to provide live camera feeds to responders, can take reconnaissance video and photos of the damaged areas and can create orthomosaic maps when data is fed through mapping software.

These data outputs are able to help answer the initial questions of “How big?” and “How bad?” a disaster is, allowing those responding to request additional resources to scale up the response, to triage those who are affected the most and thereby deploy resources quicker and more effectively.

After the initial responding phase of disasters, UAVs can provide planners with a clearer picture of what recovery will look like. UAVs can continue to create orthomosaic maps to identify damaged structures, inspect critical infrastructure, determine population displacement and movements and to provide volumetric debris measurements. Unfortunately with climate change, it means disasters will occur more frequently and with greater ferocity. The more tools we have to respond to disasters, the quicker we can get people help.

Understanding evolving technology, apprehension, and regulatory hurdles 

UAV technology is constantly evolving for the better. Drones are able to fly longer with more complex capabilities and the software and interface systems are constantly being improved, requiring more training.

The laws around UAV usage also change constantly. As well, new UAV systems require purchasing new equipment, support infrastructure and training in order to run an effective program. This requires constant investment of time and money to be an effective UAV team. Despite being powerful tools in disaster response, there is some apprehension in allowing UAV operations as part of the responses. Often after a disaster, there are many conventional aircraft in the skies around the affected area, and the increased air traffic raises the spectre of accidents between these aircraft and any UAV team operating in the area.

As well, there are privacy and cultural concerns whenever a UAV takes photos or videos of people who do not understand the intentions of the UAV flight. Administratively, the biggest hurdle is gaining the trust and permission of the domestic Civil Aviation Authority of each country. Each country is responsible for UAV regulations, licensing and operations within their borders and finding the right person to get permission to fly in the aftermath of a disaster can be a struggle. An international governing body that would oversee credentialing, licensing and procedures would lend credibility to incoming UAV teams.

Attending the UN World Food Programme UAV exercise in Mozambique

The recent UN World Food Programme UAV exercise funded by the European Union that took place in Mozambique saw participation from the Mozambican National Institute for Disaster Management, the Mozambican Army, the UN, researchers from the University of Portsmouth, the UK International Search and Rescue team, GlobalMedic, the UK Institute of Search and Technical Rescue and the Guarda Nacional Republicana Portugal along with other entities from around the world.

This exercise was the first of several phases that will build on what the researchers have learned about using drones to search for disaster victims. In this exercise, participants and their UAVs were split into four teams. To gather organized data sets, each team flew their UAVs according to specific parameters in order to gather data about what the most effective set of drone settings would be.

With numerous UAVs and pilots, we were able to fly all of the missions that the University of Portsmouth required. At the end of the research phase, researchers will publish a study on their findings of the most effective combination of UAV and camera type, camera settings and angles, flying heights and the integration of artificial intelligence used to search for victims of a disaster. The UN World Food Programme has several UAV technical working groups that meet regularly to share information and work towards regulatory standards.

The importance of in-person convening for UAV research purposes

The findings in this study will benefit members of these groups – especially those who live in disaster-prone areas. This type of research and actual experience in using UAVs for disaster response increase the efficiency and rapidity of aiding those in need. By being able to identify how bad a disaster is and how many people have been affected, responders can then scale up their response to an appropriate level which will reduce suffering and loss of life. By effectively responding to a disaster, the recovery and rebuilding process can occur quicker. As well, by being able to meet and work together in person, each organization has built credibility and trust amongst each other so that when we meet at the next disaster we can begin working right away.

Coordination, information sharing from multiple agencies and actors is key

Being able to effectively use UAVs to respond to a disaster requires trust from the host nation, coordination between UAV teams and all other air traffic and knowing how to disseminate and share the UAV data outputs to those who need it.

As a standby UAV partner with the United Nations World Food Programme, GlobalMedic RescUAV is able to upload raw imagery and processed data products which can then be disseminated to humanitarian aid agencies who may benefit from the data. This data can be interpreted by each agency to determine what needs each affected community may need in order to focus their efforts more effectively. By being able to identify specific needs in specific areas, aid agencies can respond with the resources they have at hand, aid agencies can avoid duplicative responses and will ensure that everyone who has been affected by the disaster is able to receive assistance.

Looking to the future: AI and the automation of UAVs

Artificial Intelligence is a key factor in the 4th industrial revolution we are experiencing. In terms of UAV technology and disaster response, the pace of technological change and AI will see the automation of flights and increase the efficiency and rapidity of UAV deployment. In the future, prepositioned UAVs in disaster-prone countries will automatically be dispatched to map affected areas and locate victims in need of rescue or assistance.

Heavy lift capable UAVs will drop off emergency rescue personnel and their equipment, humanitarian aid and be able to evacuate isolated victims of a disaster or those requiring medical attention. AI will allow UAVs to automatically determine flight variables, the geographic boundaries needed to be covered and will produce georeferenced data outputs downloaded to emergency responders. These capabilities will ultimately save more lives. An effective response to any disaster relies on effective coordination of all responding agencies and utilizing each of their strengths or specialties. By training and preparing for disasters, we are in a better position to respond quickly to help those in need.

We would like to thank Airlink for its continued support of GlobalMedic. With the generous support of Airlink and its donors, GlobalMedic is able to respond to numerous disasters around the world.

This blog was written by:

Jowett Wong | Rapid Response Team Leader | GlobalMedic

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