Skip to Main Content

News Detail

May 6, 2015

Eye in the Sky: Drones and Crisis Mapping

by Rich Flynn, ACORD

When the last aftershocks of Nepal’s horrendously destructive April 25th earthquake finally faded, the difficulties facing relief workers were just beginning. Rough terrain, stormy weather, poor roads, and extensive damage all serve as formidable obstacles in the way of rescue and reconstruction efforts, and will continue to do so. Responders from across the globe are deploying all the technology at their disposal to overcome these challenges, including those ever-more-ubiquitous airborne tools: drones.

Drones are simply the latest addition to the field of “crisis mapping,” a still-emerging phenomenon. It was born out of necessity during the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when international aid workers were faced with the confusion and danger of entering largely unmapped areas with a crippled infrastructure. Using readily available software and crowdsourcing techniques, with volunteers coordinated by organizations such as the Qatar Computing Research Institute, “digital humanitarians” from across the globe have mapped everything from flooding rivers to refugee movements.

In fact, the crisis mappers don’t even necessarily wait for a crisis. Anticipating a disaster like the recent one in quake-prone Nepal, Kathmandu Living Labs organized several years ago in order to map the Kathmandu Valley, the country’s densely populated capital region. Now the data collected by volunteers carrying GPS units around on bicycles is proving invaluable to relief efforts.

However, the very nature of natural catastrophes means that maps quickly become obsolete: roads, airstrips and even whole neighborhoods can end up underwater, torn apart, or choked with rubble. For up-to-the-minute visual data, drones (known in the trade as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV’s) are the perfect tool; they’ve been used to great effect during recent disasters such as Typhoon Hagupit in the Philippines and Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu. “Our UAV team is tasked with aerially mapping crisis-affected areas, then compiling and cross-stitching the collected imagery into maps that provide a superior snapshot of needs on the ground,” Canadian aid organization GlobalMedic told “Identifying flooded areas, obstructed roads, population movements, and damaged infrastructure...the possibilities for UAV use in an emergency setting are extensive.”

Drones almost seem like a custom-made solution to the challenges of Nepal. With rough terrain making ground-based surveys difficult, and heavy cloud cover obscuring satellite imagery, UAV’s provide the best views available. “Satellite images give you a vertical image, looking straight down. That’s not helpful in making a disaster damage assessment,” QCRI’s Patrick Meier told National Geographic. “With drones, we get oblique imagery, taken at an angle, which gives you a much better idea of what the damage is.” Covering as much ten square kilometers in only hours, the drones can not only provide a high-resolution image of the ground, but can even use thermal cameras to locate trapped victims.

All of this explains why relief organizations, insurance companies, and national governments are all investigating the potential of drones both during and after disasters. Here in the U.S., the FAA continues to uphold strict regulations on the commercial use of drones, but it has taken steps to relax those policies for insurers and others responding to catastrophes. As we reported in last month’s TechTalk, the FAA recently approved State Farm, USAA and AIG to not only test drones, but possibly to use them in inspections of catastrophe sites whenever it becomes necessary. The Wall Street Journal reports that AIG plans to utilize drones “in select scenarios in the U.S. this year,” and says that the FAA did not dispute USAA’s interpretation that it could conduct UAV inspections now, if a disaster were to occur.