Drones' newest mission? Disaster relief

First it was video, then it was packages. Now a new trend is emerging with drone use: humanitarian relief.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

Journalist Lewis Whyld captured drone footage of the wreckage in Tacloban, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan. Lewis Whyld

AUSTIN, Texas -- When aid workers arrived after Typhoon Haiyan hit Southeast Asia in 2013, they brought something new to help the areas battered by rain and gale force winds: unmanned aerial drones.

One of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, Typhoon Haiyan left more than 6,000 people dead, and it destroyed vast swaths of roads -- making it impossible for aid workers to reach people stranded in remote locations. So a few organizations started using drones to survey the landscape. The images they recorded helped aid workers locate missing persons and also create 2D and 3D maps to help community leaders understand the hardest hit areas.

"One of the big issues for us was to have imagery to look at," Kate Chapman, executive director of open-source mapping project Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, said during a panel at the South by Southwest festival, which brings together techies, filmmakers and musicians. "Drones can take pictures at a very low cost."

Typhoon Haiyan marked a milestone for drone use in disaster relief -- the first full-scale use of UAVs to help locate victims and chart high-risk areas.

Up till now, drones of various kinds have been known mostly as fun flying toys, high-tech surveillance machines or unmanned planes that fire missiles. More than 200,000 consumer drones were sold worldwide per month in 2014, according to market analyst firm Frost and Sullivan, and that number is expected to double this year. But an increasing number of aid organizations are also looking at drones as a way to solve some of their toughest challenges.

Since Typhoon Haiyan, aid organizations have deployed drones to help in other natural disasters, including the 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck China in August and Typhoon Ruby that hit Southeast Asia last December.

"When people see the word 'drone' they immediately think killer robot," said Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at Qatar Foundation's Computing Research Institute. "But that's not what's going on here."

Organizations around the world are finding intriguing new ways to use drones for the greater good. Kenya, for example, is deploying drones to help stop the poaching of rhinos and elephants. La Fondation Bundi, also in Kenya, has launched its Flying Donkey Challenge to build cargo drones that can deliver heavy loads of medicine to remote villages by 2020. And the Syria Airlift Project aims to use drones to drop food and medicine to communities isolated by the warring factions.

Then there's the use of drones, now in a test phase, to locate unexploded bombs and landmines from past wars. Unexploded ordinances, or UXOs, can kill or maim decades after they've been dropped or buried. In fact, landmines kill up to 20,000 people every year. Many are children, according to the United Nations.

This Arch Aerial octocopter drone will help collect Lidar images of Laos' landscape to locate landmines and unexploded bombs and munitions. Arch Aerial

More than 100 million landmines are still buried around the world, according to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. It could take 1,000 years to clear those minds at the current rate of removal. It's a slow and dangerous job, where workers typically use metal detectors, trained dogs or simply prod the soil.

A company called Arch Aerial is working on a drone system to help locate UXOs far faster than they can be spotted today. Over the past year, the company has built a drone equipped with remote sensing technology called Lidar, or light detection and ranging, which creates 3D topographical maps of the ground without vegetation. These maps could help field workers identify landmarks where UXOs are typically found, like bunkers and bomb craters.

Within the next six months, Arch Aerial will begin field-testing its drones in Laos, where the US dropped nearly 2 million tons of explosives during the Vietnam War.

"We've got a huge problem where we have UXOs littered across the country," said Ryan Baker, CEO of Arch Aerial. "Service workers have to go to these high-risk areas and risk their safety."

While Arch Aerial is making its own drones, many aid organizations use drones made by popular consumer brands like DJI and Parrot. Various US state and federal agencies have also used drones made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Boeing to monitor wildfires and assess damage after mudslides, hurricanes and earthquakes.

However, there are many obstacles to wide adoption of humanitarian drone use. For instance, regulatory red tape restricts drone use in some countries. Piloting a drone also requires training and experience, particularly flying one in inclement weather. Additionally, the devices can't carry much weight, limiting what they can do.

Cost is also a factor. A typical small shoebox-size quadcopter with a camera attachment costs roughly $500; and for a heavy-duty drone with Lidar sensors and more payload, the price rises to at least $20,000. Humanitarian organizations might be able to afford one or two of these drones, but if anything happens to a device, costs could ratchet up.

Drawing on the experience with Typhoon Haiyan, however, aid workers and humanitarian organizations appear to be optimistic that drones will be able to help in crisis situations in coming years.

"This is a new frontier. It's something that's being explored because there are a specific number of ways you can do it," said Adam Rabinowitz, archeology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "There are conflicts right now that are going to be problems in the future."