When disaster strikes, agencies spring into action to provide aid, rescue services, medical care and other forms of emergency response. More and more, first responders are looking for help from new technology to improve their ability to save lives.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—commonly known as drones—could become an important innovation for disaster preparedness and relief.

Drones offer rapid deployment to unsafe areas
The technological capabilities of UAS could prove extremely helpful before, during and after a disaster strikes. The international relief agency Medair used drones to survey damage in the days following Typhoon Haiyan, for example. The drones were able to capture high-quality images of devastated areas, feeding 3D models that informed timely strategic plans for emergency workers.

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“The imagery the drones are able to collect is amazingly accurate. Think Google Earth times 10,” said Joel Kaiser, Medair’s emergency response officer. “As such, the maps we distributed are the nearest geographical representation of these communities that has ever been possible.”

While drones have been used to map disaster sites since 1994, widespread application is a recent consideration. The U.S. military experimented with UAS to deposit heavy cargo in Afghanistan, a model delivery method for humanitarian aid. Last year, Red Cross Norway and other organizations led a Decision Support on Security Investment (DESSI) workshop on the efficacy of drones in search-and-rescue operations. Participants hope the technology can be used as a standard way to quickly scan for survivors.

Drones have already saved lives. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police used a UAS with infrared capabilities to locate an injured man lost in a heavily wooded area. The drone was brought in after traditional helicopter flyovers and on-foot searches failed.

As James Stuckey, CEO of Oklahoma-based drone company Fireflight, told CNN, “The public just isn’t really in the habit of depending on them. When they start, they won’t be able to do without them.”

Uncertainty delays humanitarian use of drones 
Although relief organizations see the benefit of these resources, it will take time before UAS devices are routinely called upon for disaster recovery work. The DESSI workshop surfaced issues with civilian drone use—such as security risks, training demands and investment costs—that threaten adoption of drones by first responder organizations. Many people view this technology as invasive and potentially dangerous.

“Drones do not have a good reputation,” said Rob Fielding, a technology and innovation officer for Medair. “People associate them with the military and think of them as weapons, but they can also be used for good.”

Privacy concerns and regulatory issues may delay the application of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration wants to be strict about who can fly a drone, but there are currently no clear restrictions for using the devices in U.S. airspace under 400 feet. Their roadmap designated six test sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia to gather data about safety, privacy, environmental impact, command control and collision avoidance. Comprehensive rules and training practices need to be established by the FAA before UAS use will become standard in the wake of disasters.

Once that happens, drones could provide financial relief for disaster agencies. According to CNN, a commercial UAS costs up to $50,000, just a fraction of the cost of acquiring and maintaining a helicopter. In addition to being small and lightweight enough to fit in the trunk of a car, a UAS is able to fly closer to the ground without disturbing the environment. In total, drones can be communicating information from the air in as little as three minutes, compared to the 45 to 60 minutes needed before a manned aircraft can begin transmitting.

Despite the hurdles, the advantages of UAS might soon be enough to integrate the technology into standard emergency response procedures. To accommodate that change, however, humanitarian agencies must prepare for the responsibility of drone use by advancing training for first responders prior to taking flight.

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