Nepal has suffered its worst earthquake in 80 years. Across the affected region, which stretches into India and Tibet, the death toll may top 10,000. The poor Asian nation’s limited infrastructure has been stretched to the breaking point by overwhelming need, as first responders attempt to rescue those trapped in remote areas and assess the damage
Drones will play a practical part in the national and international relief response to this enormous natural disaster. Nepal is currently suffering from a shortage of available manned helicopters, and drone first responders hope that their camera-bearing robots will be able to fill in some of the gaps, leaving precious helicopters for rescue missions.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are valuable in several ways. A drone video of the devastation in Kathmandu demonstrates their considerable worth as a storytelling tool. With crumbled Buddhist temples and crowds of frightened Nepalese victims, Kishor Rana’s drone video, uploaded to YouTube on Monday, is a powerful visual record of the destruction the earthquake has wrought.
Drones will also be used for more comprehensive data collection and mapping of the destruction. Why use drones for disaster response instead of ground surveys, manned aircraft, or satellite imagery? All of these more traditional tactics remain important, but UAVs play a complementary role. Ground-based field surveys take a long time to carry out and are especially difficult to manage in the rough terrain of the Himalayas, while quick-moving UAVs can cover as much as 5 to 10 square kilometers in a matter of hours, at a very high resolution.
Weather is another factor: Small UAVs can be deployed below cloud cover that hampers satellite imagery visibility, a particular problem in Nepal, where overcast conditions have made gathering post-disaster satellite visuals difficult over the past few days.
The drones headed to Nepal are coming from around the world. For instance, India has announced it’s sending UAVs to the disaster area, and the Canadian relief charity GlobalMedic has already begun flying UAVs in the Nepalese disaster area, using machinery supplied by Ontario-based Aeryon Labs.
More international teams of drone pilots are headed to Nepal, where they will conduct aerial surveys of areas identified as a high priority by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and UNICEF. The teams have been organized via the Humanitarian UAV Network organization, also known as UAViators. Team Rubicon, which is staffed by U.S. military veterans, is already on the ground in Nepal with drones in tow. As of Tuesday, teams from the U.S. drone startup SkyCatch and UAV services provider Halo Drop were en route to Nepal as well.
The drone pilots plan to create high-resolution nadir imagery (shot from directly above the ground) and oblique imagery (shot at a 45-degree angle from the ground) once they arrive. The resulting aerial imagery will be processed to create detailed 3-D point clouds—large collections of points in a three-dimensional coordinate system, which can then be used to create 3-D models of the terrain below. The 3-D models, which look a lot like video game maps, give responders more detailed information about the destruction than traditional 2-D maps can furnish, and today’s inexpensive UAV technology is particularly adept at shooting the imagery required to make them.
The year-old UAViators network, an initiative of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, has become a central organizing point for drone pilots who want to use their technological skill to help established humanitarian aid organizations engage in damage assessment and rescue efforts in the wake of disaster. Most recently, UAViators was activated after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. Drone pilots in the island nation collected high-resolution imagery of the cyclone’s destruction, which was then published on mapping website Mapbox, and shared with the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team and the MicroMappers crowdsourcing tool.
Online volunteers used Web tools to map the path of destruction and to assess the damage, including rating the destruction to buildings on a three-tiered scale, and updating Open Street Map maps based on the recorded destruction. Now, volunteers from around the world are using the same tactics to map the destruction in Nepal, and UAV imagery should be added to their repository of source data in the next few days.
While drone imagery may be extremely helpful in disaster assessment situations, it’s worth emphasizing that so-called cowboy drone pilots are less than welcome at the scene of major disasters. Organization and coordination are both key to carrying out useful post-disaster drone missions, in tandem with aid agencies that know the situation. There are many special considerations involved with safely using a UAV in disaster zones with many manned helicopters in the air and in high-altitude, difficult terrain such as that found in Nepal—considerations that the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M has handily outlined.
Simply arriving at the scene and launching a flying machine into the air is unlikely to be helpful and could even be dangerous—creating more work and more risk for first responders who are already pushed to the limit of their capacities. It could also hurt the reputation of well-organized groups using drones for rescue efforts.
So if you and your drone want to help, get in touch with the Humanitarian UAV Network and read the Network’s Code of Conduct, says UAViators founder Patrick Meier. But don’t just book a ticket to Kathmandu.