The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly known as UAVs or drones) in the crisis relief effort may surprise some: their reputation as a major leap forward in defence and intelligence operations is by now well known, but recent developments have seen their deployment in a number of disaster zones recently. For example, the cyclone in Vanuatu in March 2015 caused such devastation that conventional search and rescue operations were limited.
Into the breach stepped the Humanitarian UAV Network, an organisation supported by Meier and others working in the field. Working closely with the Australian Defence Force and the local authorities, the UAV team set up its multi-rotor UAVs to fly over the affected areas.
Meier explains that the drones weren’t simply reporting basic data back to base. Far from it, in fact.
“Oblique imagery [captured from UAVs] has been identified as more useful, though the multi-angle imagery also adds a new dimension of complexity, as we experienced first-hand during the World Bank’s UAV response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu,” wrote Meier, on his blog in the wake of the mission.
Typically, in the wake of an earthquake or typhoon or other natural disaster, local authorities (often in collaboration with international bodies like the Red Cross or UN) will carry out a detailed assessment of the damage caused.
“The ultimate goal of these assessments is to measure the impact of disasters on the society, economy and environment of the affected country or region,” writes Meier.
“This includes assessing the damage caused to building infrastructure, for example. These assessment surveys are generally carried out in person – that is, on foot and/or by driving around an affected area. This is a very time-consuming process with very variable results in terms of data quality.”
In addition, most of the assessments are done at ground level – meaning that the data gathered is only partial and cannot give a full view of the damage caused and potential hazards.