When disasters make it difficult and dangerous for people to survey and explore hard-hit areas, drones can save lives. These unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly being designed and tested for disaster relief. Many were utilized during the fall 2017 U.S. hurricane season.
“Finding people and finding them rapidly [after a natural disaster] is very important, and there’s a caveat in there … when you have no communications and no power. That’s when drones become an absolutely life-saving asset,” says Amna Greaves of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group.
What Do Relief Drones Do?
Relief drones convey real-time disaster information to relief agencies and aid to victims. For example, Greaves and her team are working with Homeland Security to develop drones that trace cell signals and aid in search-and-rescue relief efforts.
Meanwhile, the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine has developed a “telemedicine drone,” which can deliver a medical kit to patients in hard-to-reach areas after a natural disaster. The kit can contain bandages, vaccines or a defibrillator. It also includes Google Glass to connect a caregiver on the ground with a physician who can instruct them remotely. The person on the scene can “put on the glasses [and] get some information from a real doctor on how to supply the contents of the kit … ” explains Greaves.
French technology company Parrot, known for its recreational quadcopters, has produced a new Bebop Pro Thermal drone that may be a life-saver in emergencies. It can track hot spots such as body heat and feed a live image to an app. As well as being useful in rescue operations, it can aid public safety, construction and inspection workers in evaluating where heat escapes buildings or which areas of a structure are still hot after a fire. Parrot previously implemented its drones to help Fire and Emergency crews monitor flood levels in Paris in 2016.
The American Red Cross is also getting in on the relief-drone-action. They piloted a Cyphy drone to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. UPS funded the program and is a Cyphy stakeholder. UPS has also piloted drones as delivery agents for emergency medical supplies.
Johns Hopkins University is testing drones for medical applications as well -- in Sept. 2017, researchers completed the longest medical drone delivery flight on record. Their drone flew blood samples 161 miles across the Arizona desert in three hours.
What Challenges to Relief Drones Face?
For drones to be helpful during and directly after natural disasters, they need to be pretty hardy. As drones evolve to have lighter and more powerful engines and sturdier exoskeletons, they are more useful in these potentially windy and wet situations. “It’s at the point now where they’re not necessarily water resistant, but they’re not going to fall out of the sky if they get a little wet,” says photojournalist and storm-chaser Brian Emfinger, who documented Harvey and Irma.
As is common with newer technologies, government regulations are still catching up to and adapting to drone innovations. Drones are restricted by numerous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, but the agency has been supportive of their use in recent crises. The FAA issued hundreds of temporary airspace authorizations for drones involved in reconnaissance, search and rescue missions during recovery operations for Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Many of these were deployed by electric, communications and insurance companies evaluating damage to infrastructure.
On Oct. 25, 2017, the White House announced that the Department of Transportation will be creating an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, which will call on state, local, and tribal government representatives to help develop new federal drone regulations. White House adviser Michael Kratsios told reporters the “program will open the skies for delivery of life-saving medicines and commercial packages, inspections of critical infrastructure, and support for emergency management operations.”