The use of UAVs (drones) in search and rescue (SAR) operations is not radically new. Our own AeroSee project developed in 2013 developed the potential of crowd sourced search and rescue raising plenty of practical questions along the way.
At the core of the project we asked what role crowd sourcing might play in interpreting imagery and video gathered by a drone, to compensate for lack of reliable onboard image processing power. The success of this element of the project masked a series of additional questions the research team were exploring – the most controversial of them was the role the crowd might have in directing or requesting the route the drone will fly. Issues of varying degrees of drone autonomy speak to a future where (if the legal framework permits) drones will form a major component of our disaster response able to deploy quickly, operate entirely autonomously, communicate to other drones in theatre and return to base unassisted.
However, the premise for this scenario assumes that the drones in question will be deployed , and therefore under the control of, humanitarian or search and rescue professionals. These professionals would have the knowledge skills and experience to follow the operational protocols under which any international rescue mission operates.
The truth of the matter is that, for now at least, the most likely drone operators in a disaster scenario will not be on the staff of the local SAR team or a member of a legitimate NGO. They will, however, be driven by a passion to assist the people at the epicentre of the disaster. They will have technological and some aviation expertise. And they will have the sort of kit that is able to supply video and data that is of value to SAR teams, emergency responders and aid workers in the disaster zone.
The earthquake in Nepal in April this year brought both the pros and cons of drone usage in disaster zones into sharp focus. The scale of the quake and the subsequent aftershock seemed to suggest UAVs as the safest and possibly best tool to provide an overview of the scene for first responders. The reality was something slightly different and is recounted in some detail on Patrick Meier’s blog http://irevolution.net/2015/05/03/humanitarian-uav-missions-nepal/
Responding to this, I was with Patrick again last week in Bellagio where the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) recently organised a 3-day policy forum on ‘humanitarian UAVs’.
The mission of UAViators is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian settings. The forum, the first of it’s kind, was generously sponsored and hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation at their conference centre in Bellagio, Italy. The aerial panoramic photograph at the top of this was captured by UAV during the Forum.
The full account of that meeting in Bellagio can be found here: