This in-depth investigation of the use of drones in humanitarian crises is the first of its kind to determine if, how, and under what circumstances drones can add value to humanitarian operations in disaster areas. The most promising uses of drones include:
• Delivering lightweight essential items to remote or hard-to-access locations
• Supporting damage assessments
• Increasing situational awareness
• Monitoring changes
A magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador on 16 April 2016, causing over 660 deaths, thousands of injuries and widespread destruction across the north-west part of the country. The most severe damage was concentrated in the provinces of Manabí and Esmeraldas along the northern coastline. In response, the Ecuadorian Army and AeroVison carried out missions every day, using drones to assess the level of damage in cities and towns and producing maps to determine priority areas of intervention to support shelter reconstruction.
In April 2016, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck north-west Ecuador, damaging homes, buildings and infrastructure and killing more than 660 people. Thousands of buildings and homes were damaged or destroyed, as well as other infrastructure such as roadways and bridges.
A three-day emergency response simulation tested the use of drones in support of search and rescue operations in a hypothetical country affected by a severe refugee crisis while being hit by a hurricane with subsequent flooding and landslides. The test showed that drones were of limited use in this simulation but that they have potential to become part of the emergency response toolkit for very specific tasks.
The International Organization for Migration, in collaboration with the National Statistics Office of Haiti, conducted a census of areas and populations affected by the 2010 earthquake. Insufficiently precise GPS and out-dated reference imagery were inadequate to the task of clarifying land tenure status. IOM therefore conducted drone flights to obtain the high-resolution imagery essential to the preparation of assessments in Haiti’s densely populated slums.
The timely availability of aerial imagery of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, combined with existing open source imagery and census data, allowed analysts to determine with precision where assistance was needed. The ability of drones to acquire the imagery depended on pilots gaining access to the affected areas, but did not require the clear skies necessary for the effective use of satellite imagery, and the drones accomplished the task seven days before the satellites.
IOM considers the use of mapping drones a helpful tool to plan shelter units and to monitor the evolution of camps. As a result, IOM has been using drones since 2012 for this purpose. An initial drone flight in Port-au-Prince in February 2012 provided figures on seven camps for persons displaced by the 2010 earthquake. The imagery was used to delimit the extent of the camps, and then to count and uniquely identify the tents within each camp. These data could then be linked to IDP data stored in the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM).
A project employing drones in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan explored how aerial imagery might support recovery and reconstruction activities. Ultimately, the imagery captured by drones became useful in both a tactical and strategic sense during the retrofitting of shelters, and helped not only to identify and verify the shelter sites, but also to help determine the placement of latrines. The mission provided a rich learning experience on the operational use of aerial robotics in a disaster recovery context.
In late 2013, Danoffice IT used its Huginn X1 quadcopter drone during the emergency response to the worst ever Typhoon to hit The Philippines. This initiative — a pilot project conducted in partnership with humanitarian response teams on the ground — provided useful insights into the type of operational infrastructure needed to deploy drones effectively in emergencies. The drones were deployed later than anticipated, which limited the impact of the use of drones in decision-making or planning.
Heavy floods and landslides in Bosnia Herzegovina shifted minefields and explosive remnants of war (ERW) into inhabited areas. The Belgian Royal Military Academy (RMA) team worked with the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre (BHMAC) to use drone images that would help model the potential locations of some of the many displaced ERWs and mines. These models then were used to narrow down the search radius for demining teams.
The aims of the project were to provide drone training to locals around Kathmandu and to demonstrate the potential use of drone imagery in disaster response. To this end, relatively affordable consumer drones, together with mapping software and a flight-planning app, were used to achieve similar results to those a professional mapping drone would produce.
The limited access to healthcare diagnostics due to severe logistical constraints in Papua New Guinea has led Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to be one of the first humanitarian organizations to test the use of delivery drones. In 2014, technological challenges restricted the field use of this technology, but important lessons concerning acceptability and proof of concept are setting the stage for improvements in future missions.
Drones provided high-resolution, up-to-date imagery that was essential to the development of exposure maps and for modeling flood risks in Dar es Salaam. The success of the project has led to further applications and to government funding for infrastructure improvements in vulnerable areas identified by the project.
CartONG, in partnership with OSM-Fr, was able to send a volunteer in Haiti in June to support the haitian OpenStreetMap community, in particular through the deployment of an UAV, which imagery proved very useful for participatory mapping.