Flying robots: using UAVS to understand disaster risk

Source(s): Understanding Risk

World Bank Group

The threat of climate-related disasters is on the rise. In 2017 alone, economic losses from global disasters amounted to an estimated $330 billion (nearly double those of 2016). Under the weight of added pressure from rapid urbanization and population growth, many communities are increasingly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. This vulnerability, however, is being combated by major innovations aiming to transform assessment, mitigation, and response tactics in disaster risk management (DRM). The early adopters and champions of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have been at the forefront of this transformative movement.

Through dedicated efforts by tech enthusiasts and humanitarians across the globe, the UAV industry is shifting away from its initial focus on defense applications towards a comprehensive diversification of its benefits. Within the realm of Disaster Risk Management, use cases from Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America are actively demonstrating the incredible value of drones for addressing critical information gaps.

Disaster Risk Management is data hungry

It is commonly understood that risk assessment requires high-resolution data, which is generally expensive and complex to collect. Traditional methods for equivalent acquisition have relied on multiple tools, actors, and platforms, and have often delivered less-than-satisfactory results. With the introduction of UAVs into the DRM world, however, high-quality data with exceptional accuracy for multiple purposes is more accessible than ever before. This is largely due to the many intelligent and customizable sensors with which UAVs are capable of being outfitted.

Damage assessment, relief, and rehabilitation have time sensitive needs, and UAVs are uniquely able to meet them. Exercises that historically took emergency response teams days or weeks to accomplish, such as search and rescue or monitoring exceptionally risky environments, have become nearly instantaneous with UAVs, reducing logistical and cost inefficiencies. And judging by current investment trends in the commercial drone industry, the economic and logistical advantages of this technology for data collection will multiply over the coming years.

Developing countries struggle with cost complexity and keeping up-to-date

Beyond critical and immediate data needs, UAVs can be (and are being) used in developing countries as tools to consistently digitize risk across their rapidly changing landscapes. The Zanzibar Mapping Initiative is a perfect example: it is the world’s most extensive mapping exercise to-date using commercial drones for a government-driven survey.

As a small island state with limited resources and significant development in need of documentation, Zanzibar opted to invest in geospatial innovation instead of contracting a traditional manned operation. The results of this ambitious endeavor have been transformative. The previous traditional aerial mapping in 2004 cost the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar approximately $2.5 million USD and delivered orthophotos with a resolution of 13-15cm. In contrast, the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative cost only $250,000 USD (an order of magnitude less!) and provided imagery of significantly higher quality at 2.5-7cm. This initiative is proof that UAVs have the potential to make risk assessment faster, cheaper, and better – and that high-resolution assessments can be conducted in new areas where it was previously prohibitively expensive or infeasible.

Emergency management includes drone management – whether countries realize it or not

UAVs offer vast benefits for emergency response and management – increasing speed, improving safety, reducing cost, and expanding reach. The Red Cross have been quick to champion this technology for relief efforts and recently launched a comprehensive drone disaster relief program to be piloted in the United States.

Cargo drone flights are further extending emergency management benefits of UAVs by supporting response, communications, and resilient supply chains in developing regions. The “Malawi Drone Corridor,” Africa’s first air corridor to test the use of UAVs in humanitarian missions, has been one of the greatest success stories to emerge from the continent, establishing a “test site for aerial scouting in crisis situations, delivering supplies and using drones to boost internet connectivity.” In Tanzania, the Lake Victoria Challenge – scheduled for October 2018 – aims to showcase advances in autonomous technologies that can make a significant difference in hard-to-reach communities and rural areas.

Countries can use drones to leapfrog, but they need to get the environment right.

Excitement generated by the potential of UAVs in DRM has played a critical role in creating environments that stimulate innovation. That said, UAV provision for emergency relief by volunteer hobbyists has at times led to chaos, largely due to inadequate management and a lack of clear operating regulations. It is thus paramount that preparation, procedures, and permits are established in order to constructively leverage UAVs for emergency management. Once these are adopted, local skills, capacity, and analytical tools can be generated, and UAV-related partnerships and networks will reap the many benefits of this burgeoning realm.

Flying robots: Collecting, delivering and analyzing geoinformation using UAVs –a technical session at the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum – will attempt to comprehensively tackle this subject with the aid of experts and end users in this emerging area of practice. Inspiring case studies will demonstrate how UAVs have supported DRM, the challenges faced, and how they have been overcome. This will be followed by a practical session summarizing the do’s and do not’s of managing risks, organizing data, and getting involved in the future of UAVs for DRM.

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