Blog Posts

Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations: Executive Summary


Share | 04/21/2015

 Aerial drones are one of the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief operations. Drones naturally complement traditional manned relief operations by helping to ensure that operations can be conducted safer, faster, and more efficiently.

Executive Summary

Aerial drones are one of the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief operations. Drones naturally complement traditional manned relief operations by helping to ensure that operations can be conducted safer, faster, and more efficiently.

When a disaster occurs, drones may be used to provide relief workers with better situational awareness, locate survivors amidst the rubble, perform structural analysis of damaged infrastructure, deliver needed supplies and equipment, evacuate casualties, and help extinguish fires—among many other potential applications.

In advance of an emergency, drones are able to assist with risk assessment, mapping, and planning. When individuals, businesses, and communities are able to understand and manage risks and plan effectively, they reduce overall damage and losses. Rebuilding and recovery are then able to begin more quickly and ultimately strengthening the resiliency of communities.

Drones have long been described as optimally suited to perform the “3-D” missions, often described as dirty, dull, and dangerous. They can provide needed aerial data in areas considered too hazardous for people on the ground or for manned aircraft operation, such as sites with nuclear radiation contamination or in close proximity to wildfires. Drones can also deliver needed supplies and relay Wi-Fi and cellular phone service when communications are needed the most.

This report will discuss how drones and the aerial data they collect can be used before, during, and after a disaster. It includes an overview of potential solutions and deployment models, as well as, recommendations on removing regulatory barriers to their use.

The American Red Cross, leading private sector companies, and federal agencies coordinated by Measure, a 32 Advisors Company, have come together to explore and explain how and why drones should be used in the wake of natural disasters and other emergencies that threaten widespread loss of life and property.

Project sponsors included:

  • Guy Carpenter & Co., Inc.
  • IBM Smarter Cities
  • Insitu/Boeing
  • Lockheed Martin
  • UPS
  • USAA
  • Willis Group
  • Zurich North America

Key public sector participants included:

  • FAA
  • FEMA
  • NEMA
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • Washington State
  • New York State
  • State of New Jersey
  • Disaster City @ Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) | Emergency Services Training Institute

Work on this report began on November 12, 2014 at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the succeeding months, Measure has worked in close collaboration with the report’s sponsors and the American Red Cross, hosting weekly progress calls. In early 2015, the team met with staff from state emergency management offices in New Jersey, New York, and Washington State to discuss the agencies’ past drone use, determine alternate uses for drones in disaster relief, and consider deployment models.

Test flights in support of this project would not have been possible without the partnership and support of Dr. Robin Murphy at the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). Dr. Murphy is a professor of computer science and engineering and has extensive experience in disaster robotics. CRASAR has pioneered the use of robots in disaster response for years, sending search and rescue robots into 21 catastrophes around the globe over the last decade. CRASAR operated drones in the Ground Zero rubble after 9/11 and flew reconnaissance drone missions over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In March 2015, Measure, Dr. Murphy’s team, and the sponsors of this report successfully tested and demonstrated the capabilities of drones in a chaotic post-disaster simulation. The FAA- approved trial flights conducted at Disaster City®, Texas, a disaster-training site administered by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, evaluated the accuracy and ability of drones in assessing damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Our work since November 2014 has focused on the following three areas:

  • Policy Recommendations
  • Use Cases
  • Platforms, Payloads, Software

a) Policy Recommendations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose stated mission is “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,”1 has been understandably cautious in integrating drones into the national airspace. Nevertheless, considering the immediate benefits for civilians, communities, and first responders, integrating drones into emergency and disaster response protocols should be a top priority for the FAA and other federal, state, and local entities.

At present, private sector companies, even with Section 333 exemptions, are unable to quickly respond to a disaster because of challenges associated with the COA process. This process may take up to 60 days, and if left unchanged would further delay the use of drones to collect aerial data for disaster response efforts. Due to the unique regulatory hurdles these private companies face, this report outlines policy recommendations that will address how to safely and more effectively integrate private drone operations into the emergency response regulatory framework.

The potential benefits that can come from collecting aerial data from drones in relief efforts warrant swift action on the part of regulators to create a sensible framework of rules that allow both the public and private sectors to get airborne.

Recommendations in this report are summarized here. Details on each recommendation can be found in Chapter 3:

  1. Develop an emergency COA process for private sector and non-profit organizations that would allow for the on-demand operation of drones post-disaster and issue blanket approval for locations in which these entities can fly.
  2. Permit small and microUAS operations in controlled airspace within disaster areas.
  3. Permit commercial small and microUAS operations over populated areas during declared emergencies.
  4. Accelerate the implementation of the new unmanned aircraft operator certificate requirement to the existing Section 333 exemption process.
  5. Encourage data sharing between governments, the private sector, and commercial drone operators to maximize response strategy, speed, and efficiency.
  6. Encourage the development and implementation of Privacy Best Practices for drone operations in accordance with Presidential Memorandum, “Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Verify drone operators observe all applicable local, state, and federal privacy laws.
  7. In the event of a disaster, have in place a defined process for scaling up FAA staff resources to process requests to fly so that they can be handled quickly.
  8. Constantly adapt FAA drone regulations as airspace integration and deployment models evolve.

b) Use Cases

There are many compelling humanitarian, safety, and economic reasons to use drones before and after disasters, helping communities to recover and strengthening their resiliency:

  • Drone technology can reduce disaster worker, claims adjuster, and risk engineer exposure to unnecessary danger.
  • Drones enhance the effectiveness of responders.
  • Drones provide unique viewing angles not possible from manned aircraft.
  • Drone technology is highly deployable.
  • Drone technology is cost-efficient.

The use cases for drones in disaster prevention, planning, response, and rebuilding are quite expansive. Some of these overlap with missions typically performed by manned aircraft, but drones often outperform manned aircraft for the reasons listed above. Below are some of the most common and/or most promising use cases for drones in disaster relief:

  • Reconnaissance and Mapping
  • Structural Assessment
  • Temporary Infrastructure / Supply Delivery
  • Wildfire – Detection and Extinguishing
  • High-Rise Building Fire Response
  • Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or Explosive (CBRNE) Event
  • Search and Rescue Operations
  • Insurance Claims Response and Risk Assessment
  • Logistics Support

c) Platforms, Payloads, Software

The variation in drone capability and design allows drone applications to be broad and flexible and also enables drones to accomplish unique and specific missions for emergency and disaster response and for loss prevention and mitigation.

While platforms dictate the ability of the drone to access certain environments, its payload often determines the type of data it can collect. Remote sensors like electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) cameras can help to establish situational awareness while communications relay payloads can be used to broadcast wireless frequencies wherever the drone travels.

Drones are wedded to software capabilities that can streamline access to and sharing of data. It is the data from drones that holds great potential, for example, when integrated into crowd- sourced crisis maps and existing geographic information systems (GIS).

A list of the basic platform, payload, and software types is summarized in the report, followed by a series of five representative examples.

The report outlines how drones have the potential to revolutionize disaster planning, preparation, response, and reconstruction. However, for this potential to be fully realized, public, private, and non-profit organizations involved in emergency response must be aware of this utility on a granular level. Policies must also be implemented by lawmakers that ensure the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system while still being flexible enough to accommodate current and future drone deployment models. This report is an important first step in moving drones for disaster response and relief operations from a promising technology to a game- changing reality.

Glossary of Acronyms

Section 333 – Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).

C2 – Command and control. The data link between a drone and its operator that allows the operator to control the drone’s movements and actions.

COA – Certificate of Waiver or Authorization. Issued by the FAA Air Traffic Organization to an operator for a specific unmanned aircraft activity

CRASAR — Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. Headquartered at Texas A & M University, CRASAR is a leading research group in disaster robotics, which conducted test flights for this study.

EO sensor – Electro-optical sensor. On drones, most commonly a digital camera that detects light on the visual spectrum.

EO/IR – Dual electro-optical and infrared sensor.

IR – Infrared. The infrared spectrum refers to long-wave radiation beyond the visual spectrum of light. IR sensors can detect and visualize heat signatures.

LiDAR – LiDAR uses lasers to create high-resolution 3D maps.

NPRM – Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Issued by a federal executive agency before a change to regulations, an NPRM is released to the public for comment before permanent rules are instituted. FAA released an NPRM for small UAS (under 55 lbs.) in February 2015.

SAR – Synthetic Aperture Radar. A form of radar that can create detailed 2D and 3D maps and cut through fog and smoke.

UAS – Unmanned aerial system. An unmanned aircraft and associated elements, including communication links and the components that control the unmanned aircraft they are required for the pilot in command to operate safely and efficiently in the national airspace system (P.L. 112-95, Section 331).

UA – Unmanned aircraft. Any aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft (P.L. 112-95, Section 331).

Newsletter sign up

Sign up to receive updates directly to your inbox.