Drones for Disaster Relief

Drones for Disaster Relief

By Drone USA, Posted in November 26, 2018

Drones have been in use for humanitarian aid since the early 1990’s, and have steadily expanded into other types of relief efforts. Today, drones are revolutionizing disaster response efforts and have taken an active role in the process of helping save lives. NATO and the European Union, for example, employ surveillance drones in their peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. In the civil sector, drones are commonly used for mapping and monitoring disaster sites and in search and rescue operations, including wildfires, earthquakes, and even nuclear disaster sites.

Hurricanes have captured the world’s attention lately as both their frequency and power are increasing; they’ve become a symbol of the negative effects of climate change. In the wake of such catastrophes, drones are an indispensable tool for emergency crews and have been applied in all manner of tasks – from documenting property damage to pinpointing the locations of people in need of rescue.

Similarly, wildfires are earning infamy on par with that of hurricanes, and drones are right there to help firefighters collect data that response teams on the ground would otherwise be unable to collect. The drones’ real time aerial and infrared views show firefighters where the fire is headed, allowing them to drastically cut down the time it takes to respond.

A bird’s eye view has become essential for humanitarian response during any disaster, which is why satellite imagery has played such a pivotal role in relief operations for decades. That being said, satellites’ usability is inhibited by many limitations. Things like high operational costs, restrictions on data sharing, poor visibility, low resolution images, and the amount of time it takes to acquire images can hamper the critical response time of relief efforts on the ground.

Conversely, drones can capture high resolution images in real time and at a fraction of the cost. Even a low-tech drone available to the public can be piloted using a smartphone app paired to the drone. The pilot simply highlights the desired area on a map, and the drone can become completely autonomous, flying through the selected area and collecting data and digital photos completely unmanned. This information is then stitched together to create an extremely accurate three-dimensional map of the desired area.

Organizations like the Red Cross have begun to take full advantage of this idea and are starting to incorporate more sophisticated drones in their disaster relief efforts. Several studies have confirmed the fact that drones help improve situational awareness to those responsible for coordinating rescue efforts so that life-changing decisions can be made more quickly. The information they gather is used to clearly communicate which critical areas are at risk and to direct relief workers and recovery efforts efficiently. Drones also help to keep first responders and search and rescue and relief workers safe by mitigating the element of risk that team members confront. Ultimately, this information grants command centers the ability to coordinate several teams and relief agencies simultaneously, vastly improving the overall effectiveness and life saving potential in the aftermath of a disaster.

In almost all disasters, search and rescue is the number one focus for relief workers; in this area, drones have several advantages over traditional search and rescue methods. In most disaster situations, the affected area becomes impassable by land, and many settings are unsafe for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to fly in. This is where drones are far superior to their manned counterparts. In the wake of a disaster, drones can immediately begin scanning the area and pinpointing the locations of people in need of rescue before it is safe for aircraft to fly. During wildfires, when visibility is minimal, the bird’s eye view of a drone can see through dense smoke using infrared cameras, which improves a team’s ability to offer support quickly. Once people in need of assistance are located, teams can coordinate the next course of action, determining who is in need of the most immediate assistance and even delivering rescue ropes or life jackets to people who are in areas that are too dangerous for rescuers to reach.

Drones can also provide valuable assistance in the aftermath of disasters. Using drones, state agencies and insurance companies are better able to assess damage to infrastructure, including buildings, roads, bridges, and power lines. This same data is also used to justify funding from state and federal funds. Over time, aerial maps and other data collected can help to evaluate the progress of the recovery process. Disaster relief agencies and rescue workers also use the data to debrief and understand what worked and what could be done better in the future, making drones a valuable training tool for future disaster response.

The benefits drones offer to disaster relief are obvious, and the possibilities are expanding daily. The ability to gain visual information in real time means relief workers can make better decisions and streamline their operations. In the near future, we can expect to see countless configurations and types of drones ready to help disaster relief agencies around the world improve their capabilities and save lives.

Here are some types of emergency situations drones can be valuable in, and ways they can help:

Search and Rescue

Search and rescue missions are extremely important when it comes to keeping citizens safe.  When used in search and rescue missions, drones have the ability to cover massive areas using thermal cameras in both dark and light situations.  Time is essential when it comes to search and rescue missions and the use of drones can save valuable time and greatly boost success rates.

Active Shooters

Police forces can use drones to help investigate active shooter situations. Drones can provide insights and intelligence to police without having to risk a live body. When a suspect is considered armed and dangerous, the use of a drone can help law enforcement pinpoint where the shooter is and allow the department to develop the best plan to diffuse the situation in the shortest amount of time.    

Analyze the Scene

Helping to better and more accurately analyze a crime scene is another benefit that drones can offer to police. . Drone technology can help to recreate a scene by using a measurable and navigable map. This is far more efficient than the animated recreations that have been used for years previously.

Traffic Collisions

Similar to how drones are used to recreate a crime scene, they can also do the same with the scene of an automobile accident. By using a police drone for 3D mapping, you can quickly and accurately put together a 3D rendering of the scene, which takes far longer when manual measurements are taken.


Surveillance drones also allow police forces to scout areas where suspects may be hiding out. The use of drone technology in this situation keeps the mission as discreet as possible. In situations where a suspect could easily be alerted to an officer/patrol car performing routine surveillance, a drone can help combat this problem, and allow for a closer look at any situation, while keeping officers safe at the same time.

Drones are becoming increasingly more ingrained with police work and are proving to be invaluable by increasing mission success rates and keeping body counts low.