Drones in Disaster Relief
We will explore several scenarios that drones are assisting in disaster relief. The first will tell how drones are assisting power workers to restore power to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The second will discuss China’s use of drones to help with earthquake relief. We will then look at drones being used to fight wildfires. We will conclude with drones helping determine the degree of nuclear fallout after Fukushima.
Drones Restoring Power in Puerto Rico
After the catastrophe of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the island went more than 160 days without power to many of their areas. Duke Energy, a North Carolina based power company made the decision to use commercial drones to assist in rebuilding the island’s infrastructure (Adams, Eric (2018) Drones.). Previously, commercial drones provided photographs and videos, or were engineered to perform automate mapping or scanning tasks. They were not used for heavy lifting or manual labor. It seems the disaster in Puerto Rico has changed that.
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How it works
As Puerto Rico continues to struggle getting back online, commercial drones are adding efficiency by lifting power lines into place, saving time and effort for the crews of linemen working from the ground. Duke Energy has deployed five drones operated by two licensed pilots to search for downed poles and broken lines. The drones are then used to run new lines over often inaccessible terrain. What used to require a human to navigate over the unsafe ground and use a gun to shoot the lines from one pole to another, is now more efficiently and safely handled by drones. These drones can find the downed lines faster and help facilitate the repairs without the danger of human injury.
AceCore’s Zoe quadcopters, which retail for $15,000 each, can carry 26 pounds and fly for 40 minutes. They are able to spot downed lines more quickly than humans and then thread those lines through poles, saving a lot of time and money. This technology is helping restore power to the remaining people that Maria left in the dark.
Drones used in China’s Earthquake Response
China has worked really hard to improve response training, public communication, and reduce the impact of earthquakes since the 1960s (Bateman, Joshua (2017) China’s). The Chinese have more recently honed their disaster response strategy with the use of drones. They have begun deploying drones to locate survivors and navigate disaster zones when time is limited and the situation is ominous.
Drones are making the location of earthquake survivors much more efficient than ever before, according to Shang Hong of the National Earthquake Response Support Service. Ninety percent of people located within the first half hour live. Twenty-four hours later the rate drops to 81 percent. Five days later and it’s only seven percent. That’s significant.
Once a quake occurs, the drones are launched, flying one hour intervals and surveying two square miles each run. They are able to scan the debris for visible light, infrared, multispectral, and hyperspectral sensors. The drones can send that data back to response teams that can rush to help those in need.
In 2008 China was struck with an earthquake in Sichuan. The earthquake took the lives of 69,000 people. During the earthquake, landslides and blackouts occurred in many areas. This made it difficult to deliver supplies to cut off victims. Using drones, the Chinese responders were able to locate infrastructure issues preventing rescue efforts and find alternate measures to further their rescue efforts.
Drones Deliver Medical Supplies in Rwanda
Several drone companies are delivering essential medical supplies and human blood to isolated areas surrounded by difficult terrain, bad roads, and periodic flooding. One company, Zipline International Inc., located in San Francisco, is helping the Rwandan government to deliver blood and vaccines by drones as needed (Hotz, Robert Lee (2017) In Rwanda). This company ran more than 2000 flights last year using 15 all weather drones. One third of the flights have been delivering blood supplies for women in childbirth and victims of accidents.
Zipline is currently planning to expand with a second base in Rwanda, which will bring their total to sixty drones. They’re also planning to expand into Tanzania, where there are 1000 clinics serving ten million people. According the the World Health Organization, there are about two billion people in rural Africa without access to essential medical care.
Drones Fighting Wildfires
Wildfires in California are becoming more and more brutal. In 2017, wildfires destroyed millions of acres of land, destroyed more than eight thousand buildings. Killing more than 40 people, they were the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history. As fire seasons are becoming longer, Los Angeles Fire Department has opted to use firefighting drones to help coordinate the fire response (Baggeley, Kate (2017) Drones).
Using drones will help contain and extinguish fires with more efficiency and safety. The offer an excellent aerial view of terrain allowing firefighters to see where fires are likely to spread and to determine the next course of action to evacuate where necessary and contain the fires.
When looking at drones versus conventional aircraft, drones have some significant advantages. One of those advantages is safety of crew and pilots. Plane and helicopter crashes account for 24 percent of wildfire firefighter deaths, according to the Forestry Service.
An unmanned aircraft can also see through the smoke with specific sensors and traverse through other areas where helicopters and manned aircraft cannot fly. There are even sensors to help detect wind speed and direction, which is key in determining which direction a fire might turn. They can also carry supplies and dump buckets of water on fires at night while other aircraft are down for the night.
They could potentially assist in working through controlled burns to help establish fire breaks. This involves dropping a fire ball from a low altitude to ignite vegetation that would normally feed the fire. Without this vegetation, the fire won’t go past that point in many cases. These drops are dangerous to do in manned aircraft due to the low altitude required, but are an excellent job for an unmanned craft to do. Perhaps with the help of drones, we could see an end to these uncontrolled wildfire disasters.
Drones Monitoring Nuclear Fallout
In 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. (Margaritoff, Marco (2017) Odaka.) People were evacuated from the town of Odaka and 6 years later were allowed to begin returning home. Unfortunately for the returning population in Odaka, there is not much improvement in capability of shopping for necessities like food. A convenience store chain named Lawson teamed up with e-commerce company Rakuten and is providing a trial run of drone food delivery service in Odaka. They work by sending food to a local food truck where customers can order hot meals, like fried chicken, as well as household essentials.
Another way that drones are being used in Fukushima is radiation mapping. The Remote Intelligence Survey Equipment for Radiation, or RISER, is able to use software fromn Createc on a drone created by Blue Bear to create 3D maps of the radiation affected area. The Blue Bear drone was already being used with lasers to navigate the facility. This technology will allow for monitoring of potential radiation spread, thereby allowing governments to protect their people from the dangers of radiation exposure.
Drones offer an opportunity to assist in disaster relief in ways that are efficient and offer greater safety to disaster workers. Some ways drones can help are:
- Search and Rescue Operations
- Blood and medical supply delivery
- Wildfire extinguishing
- Restoring Power
- Assessing Structural Damage
There are many more applications for drones to be used in disaster recovery. Hopefully, drones and their pilots will be able to continue evolving their capabilities to become even greater assets in the aftermath of disaster.