Even before the pandemic, at Airworks 2019, DJI announced that drones saved the lives of 279 people around the world. The number probably represents a small fraction of documented cases where drones were used as a means for public safety. For example, during the lockdown that followed after the onset of COVID-19, drones helped Indian authorities to contain the spread of the virus by monitoring the streets for unlawful gathering. Read the full case study.
We have just scratched the surface when it comes to commercial drone usage - drones have tremendous potential in disaster management alone.
In a report from the United Nations, it has been stated that 1.2 million lives were lost, 1.7 trillion dollars of damage was done and 2.9 billion people were affected due to global disasters that occurred between 2002 and 2012. With economic and human losses of this magnitude, every new technology that promises to save lives has a huge potential, including drone technology.
How are drones used in disaster response
There are several pre-existing protocols that are supposed to be followed during disaster response. Most of them have been successful so far, but they create their own set of challenges. The main one is the response time, which is of great importance during disaster management. The second one is logistical support.
For example, in 2015, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 devastated the Kathmandu region of Nepal, which claimed the lives of 9000 people. All means of transportation were destroyed which drastically affected the disaster response and relief work. Many people, trapped under the rubble, lost their lives since help didn’t reach them on time.
When the Nepali government appealed for assistance to the international community, help arrived in the form of medical support, food, and relief equipment. Several international agencies came and deployed drones to help better assess the situation and to aid the search and rescue process.
Another case study in 2022 conducted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Research Division highlights the promising potential of drone technology in emergency response operations. The study investigated the application of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) across four key areas: traffic incident management, natural disaster response, hazardous material incident response, and search and rescue operations.
Drones help improve the response time, since they can be deployed much faster, as compared to traditional vehicles like a helicopter. Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) drones can cover large distances and assess the situation in an event where all transportation routes have been destroyed or made inaccessible.
Benefits of using drones in disaster relief
The process of disaster management can be broken down into the following stages:
Using drones for disaster response can add value to all of the above-mentioned stages according to a study from Zurich North America. The study highlights the correlation between a short response during the early phase of disaster recovery with increased success in search and rescue operations.
To better appreciate the benefits of using drones, consider the following:
- Drones can ensure the safety of people. During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster 2011, drones were used to survey the extent of the disaster without risking the lives of the relief workers.
- Drones are quite effective as first responders since they can be deployed fast and easily, as compared to manned aerial vehicles.
- Drones are relatively inexpensive, and with the help of a drone fleet management system, can be deployed in large numbers as autonomous fleets.
Popular Drones Used During Disaster Management
Disaster relief drones are becoming increasingly essential for emergency response operations. These unmanned aerial systems (UAS) offer a range of benefits that make them invaluable in disaster situations. Here are some notable drones that are making a significant impact in disaster relief:
- DJI Phantom 4 RTK: Renowned for its high-resolution imaging capabilities, the DJI Phantom 4 RTK is perfect for mapping and surveying disaster-stricken areas. Its real-time kinematic (RTK) technology ensures greater positional accuracy.
- Parrot Anafi USA: Developed with emergency responders in mind, the Parrot Anafi USA features a 32x zoom camera and a FLIR thermal sensor. This combination allows for visible and thermal imaging, which is particularly helpful for search and rescue efforts and damage assessment.
- DJI Matrice 300 RTK: This industrial-strength drone has an impressive flight time of up to 55 minutes and can carry multiple payloads, such as high-resolution cameras, thermal sensors, and LiDAR sensors. Its capabilities make it an excellent choice for surveying large disaster-affected areas and providing situational awareness.
- SenseFly eBee X: A fixed-wing drone designed for long-range flights and high-resolution aerial mapping, the eBee X can quickly cover vast areas. Its speed and efficiency make it well-suited for damage assessment after natural disasters and search and rescue missions.
- Aeryon SkyRanger R70: This adaptable drone can be equipped with various payloads, including high-definition video, thermal imaging, and zoom cameras. With a 50-minute flight time and a durable design, the SkyRanger R70 can tackle a wide range of disaster response scenarios.
Drone Applications for Supporting Disaster Response
Drones are a versatile tool, to be used in various ways, as a critical aid in disaster response.
- Drones have long been in use for aerial mapping and surveys. The same application can be easily extended to disaster response. For example, drones were used during the landslide of Oso, Washington in 2014 to map the region after the incident.
- It often happens during an earthquake that a partially damaged building or a civic structure requires a thorough inspection before it can be deemed safe for humans to go there. Drones equipped with sensors like infrared (IR) cameras can do the job safely.
- Drones can be used for medical delivery. A US-based company called Matternet did its first field trial of medical delivery using drones to camps set up after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
- Drones can be used for search and rescue operations. In 2005, fixed-wing drones were used to search for survivors after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.
How FlytBase Enables Drones for Disaster Relief
Drones are not just a piece of hardware; they are usually paired with intelligent software to make them truly effective. In a disaster situation of a large magnitude, having multiple drones can be advantageous, but managing a swarm of drones is not easy. FlytBase, with its cloud-based software solution, solves the problem of simultaneously controlling and managing a large number of drones.
In brief, FlytBase works as a cloud application that provides a unified dashboard to manage drones connected to the system.
When a request comes for deploying a drone, an emergency response operator can use the advanced mission planner to create a flight path for the drone and initiate the launch. Once in the air, the drone flies with full autonomy as per the mission plan. Below is an illustration of how a drone public safety operation might operate:
FlytBase is available in two versions, FlytBase Business and Enterprise; the latter offers a host of customization options.
This is a standard offering that provides usability out of the box. The offering comes with features specifically designed for disaster response and public safety operations. Here are some of those features and how they benefit disaster relief operations:
- The ability to control drones over 4G/LTE/5G networks. By combining this feature with VTOL drones, a disaster response team can fly drones for long distances, and conduct surveys and mapping of an affected area.
- Role-based access to the system. Disaster response teams are multi-faceted and not all require the same level of access to the drones. A relief worker on the ground might require only video access compared to someone who is required to assess the entire situation for planning logistics.
- A mixed fleet of drones. FlytBase is a hardware-agnostic platform i.e. it supports both off-the-shelf and custom drones based on PX4 and Ardupilot. In a disaster situation, different types of drones might be required. For example, delivery drones are heavy and can carry large packages. Whereas, drones meant for surveys are smaller in size and may even have fixed wings for long-distance flight.
- Live video streaming and sharing. Video feeds from a swarm of drones flying over a disaster-affected area can be streamed onto a single unified dashboard, which is ideal for command center operations.
The Enterprise version includes FlytBase Business as well as customization and add-ons, for operations that need scalability and a high degree of automation. This edition includes an operating system, which is installed on a single-board computer (SBC) - the SBC is then attached to the flight controller of a drone. This configuration allows for add-ons and integration, some of them are as follows:
- Obstacle avoidance, also known as FlytCAS, allows a drone to fly over a complex environment. This feature is useful when a drone is flying over or near ruins which can throw unexpected obstacles.
- Precision landing, also known as FlytDock, allows a drone to land precisely on a machine-generated visual tag. This feature can be used when a drone has to land on a specific location to make a delivery.
- Object detection, also known as FlytAI, allows a drone to detect objects from its video feed. This feature can be used to detect moving objects or humans on the ground during a search and resume operation.
Support for third-party integrations: The FlytBase application supports integration with third-party applications. During a disaster scenario, it is important to accurately log the drone flights and to make sure the drones don’t interfere with other aircraft. There are service providers like DronelogBook for flight data recording and Airdata for airspace intelligence, which can be integrated with FlytBase easily.
Advanced geofence: For the safety of the drones and compliance with airspace norms, it is necessary to restrict the area of operation during any relief work. FlytBase supports polygon geofences for operators to work on complex geography.
Integration with ground-based hardware: FlytBase has native support for ground-based hardware like charging pads and Drone-in-a-Box systems. By using such hardware, a first-responder system can be set up where the launch and docking of a drone are fully automated. When disaster strikes, such systems can be activated for faster response and expedite the overall relief process.
Some Instances of FlytBase in Use
During the recent lockdown for COVID-19, India's first drone command center was established in Ahmedabad, by Dronelab, using FlytBase, which allowed local drone pilots to launch coordinated operations to monitor the streets for unlawful gathering.
One of our partners in Belgium, DR ONE, is using FlytBase for airport asset monitoring.
History was created in the city of Lillestrøm, Norway, when Droneverkstedet, one of our partners, conducted the very first remote drone construction site inspection using FlytBase over a 5G network.
In this blog, we discussed the usability of drones in disaster response and the problems they help solve. Then we reviewed the benefits of using drones for use cases in disaster situations. Finally, we ended on the note of how the FlytBase drone fleet management system enables disaster management teams to quickly deploy and manage drones for disaster relief. Leverage the power of FlytBase to conduct remote public safety operations with capabilities of automation and AI.
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As a Marcom Manager at FlytBase, Baisali oversees the content strategy, creation, and management! With over 7 years of experience in the drone industry and 3 years of it at FlytBase, she’s a self-proclaimed drone fanatic and is obsessed with all things geographical. In 2022, she has been recognized as the “Women to Watch in UAS” for AI/Autonomy category by Women and Drones.
When she’s not busy hosting FlytBase’s webinar series or organizing NestGen - a global drone autonomy focused event, you can find her exploring the Patagonian Desert, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, or the Yellowstone Caldera on Google Earth.