In light of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake and more recent Texas floods, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have begun redefining themselves in a far more positive light. While the MQ-1 Predator once struck fear unto those below, new instruments from drone manufactures such as DJI and 3D Robotics are beginning to provide hope, support, and potentially even supplies to regions devastated by natural disaster.
Already one of the poorest countries in Asia, the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks rocked Nepal more than a decade back in terms of infrastructure development and economic growth. Prior to the devastation, Nepal was significantly behind in constructing the roads, bridges, and other transportation systems necessary to attract business and investment. What limited progress had been made was effectively wiped out. Experts estimate economic losses to be around 35% of Nepal’s $19.3 billion total GDP, of which at least $5 billion will have to go towards recovery. As such, any recovery effort will have to be both effective and cost-efficient.
While manned aircraft were initially deployed, the helicopter crash in May that killed 6 US marines and 2 Nepali soldiers proved this to extremely dangerous. What’s more, aircraft often could not navigate or land in the rugged, mountainous terrain due to their bulk. Consequently, recovery efforts turned to drones as an alternative method of conducting aerial mapping, damage assessment and search for injured persons. In addition to unique vantage points for coordinating relief and reconstruction efforts, drones offered the extended benefit of real-time data at a fraction of the cost -- encouraging collaboration across different locations and facilitating communication amongst the various first responders.
Similarly, search and rescue efforts in Texas found drones to be tremendously beneficial in monitoring water levels and evaluating property damage. Drones were able to fly lower than previously possible over unstable debris, as well as identify the extent of flooding. This allowed teams to navigate swiftly and safely to the areas where help was desperately needed.
Although drones have already assisted in disaster relief, emerging technologies will likely only improve their utility. For instance, it’s not difficult to imagine the commercial delivery systems being developed by Amazon and Fedex being repurposed, as needed, for dispensing humanitarian aid. Manned aircraft while extremely valuable in certain instances have operational limitations that make small, agile drones better suited for some of these challenging tasks.