WATCH: Drone Applications for Disaster Management

By: South Africa Flying Labs

Any disaster threatens the welfare and health of people, even more so for large-scale disasters with proportionally significant impacts. Therefore, a rapid and effective response mechanism is necessary when disasters occur to assist the affected population and mitigate the economic and social effects. However, in most cases, one of the biggest challenges emergency rescue teams face in disaster-stricken areas is limited access to accurate data, enabling them to assess the situation and understand the severance levels. 

Organizations, government agencies, and individuals are deploying new technologies such as drones and robotics to reduce intervention time and rapidly reach victims to improve disaster response and efficiency. In addition, drone data have proven to be practical tools in collecting critical information for rescuers and decision-makers. 

The team of Sierra Leone Flying Labs hosted a webinar on Disaster Preparedness with South Africa and Nepal Flying Labs, sharing different project experiences on how drones can be used in disaster response and preparedness. 

For context, Sierra Leone is highly exposed to landslides, droughts, and floods. It is ranked third in climate change vulnerability, just behind Guinea Bissau and Bangladesh. According to a publication relief web, Nepal is also highly vulnerable to natural disasters such as extreme droughts, floods, landslides, and fires. Nepal’s geographic location also makes it prone to seismic activity from the nearby Indian and Tibetan plates. South Africa has recorded more natural disasters than any African country in the last two years.

These countries’ challenges have made government agencies, organizations, and individuals work progressively to advance their country’s disaster resiliency and preparedness by deploying emerging technologies like drones and robotics for disaster preparedness.

“Why, When and how to use Drones for disaster response.”

Samuel shared his experience from the 2017 Landslide incident where his Organization, Track Your Build, worked with the United Nations Office for Outer Space to immediately create damage and risk assessment maps using drones, this data provided insights to the first responders.

When using drones in disaster situations, some key factors to note include the size of the area being mapped, collecting imagery where cloud cover precludes the use of satellites and airplanes; operating in dense and changing environments such as urban areas and refugee camps; creating accurate elevation models for flood, avalanche, and debris flow modeling and rubble volume calculations and making 3D renderings of buildings and geographic features. For example, key actors should present data collected and processed in an easily readable format.

Drone for Disaster Preparedness: A case study of coastal vulnerability Assessment in Sierra Leone

Mansa-Musa’s presentation gave a different perspective on how drones and GIS can be used for disaster preparedness. His presentation was based on a project the team had worked on with the UNDP and other government stakeholders to undertake a vulnerability assessment of 6 coastal communities in Sierra Leone. The project’s purpose was to identify, analyze and document existing factors contributing to coastal communities’ vulnerability to climate change and ensure that sufficient information is available to determine the scale of interventions needed to strengthen resilience.  

Mansa-Musa shared insights on the vital role of GIS in effectively executing this project. Next, the team undertook a coastal vulnerability assessment considering the physical and socio-economic indexes. Mansa noted some of the challenges encountered in this project included limited access to good quality open data sources not suitable to the objectives of their project. They also found data gaps in most areas due to cloud covers. To overcome these challenges, they deployed drones, captured digital surface models and land use/land cover mass, and generated an overview of orthomosiacs to extract features that will be used as input variables for coastal vulnerability indices. 

They found that with drones, they could retrieve their information immediately, with high-level resolution images when you compare it to the free, open-source satellite image resources. After collecting vital data using drones, the team used GIS to analyze the information, develop an algorithm, and ensure that their investigations on coastal erosion and sea-level rise were accurate. Through GIS analysis, they could rank the coastal communities into different levels of vulnerability. The findings from this study helped develop adaptation action plans to protect the sea walls and accommodate the risks by implementing specific measures.

Drones for Disaster Preparedness and Response

Jack of South Africa Flying Labs shared insights from an informal settlement project in one of South Africa’s oldest towns. The South African Flying Labs team works closely with government stakeholders to establish flood and fire-risk mitigation mechanisms, enhance spatial planning of settlements and increase disaster prioritization.

Drones in Humanitarian Open Spaces for Emergency Preparedness and Response

Uttam of Nepal Flying Labs shared his experiences from his team’s project on identifying and mapping humanitarian open spaces to strengthen the emergency preparedness and provide an initial response planning framework for the local government and partner agencies. This project took a 5-step approach starting with carrying out a desk study literature review, community engagement, categorizing existing open spaces based on international standards, field survey & data collection, data processing & GIS Mapping, and finally, output validation.

The drone data was used to create four visualization types for local governments. The maps were subsequently compiled into a map book and presented in local languages for decision-makers to read and interpret the different elements. The team designed and installed big-sized community maps to ensure communities had access to these resources. The information collected from this process was submitted to the national disaster management information systems for easy access.

Uttam also shared recommendations that could be adapted to other humanitarian open space mapping projects.

He recommends the following:

  • Identification and Mapping are insufficient; these areas must be listed in the annual publications of local governments with a commitment to protection.
  • Urbanization is rapid, and Special Regulations and Strict Monitoring is required for their preservation.
  • Using the datasets and visualizations created, concerned government agencies and development organizations/ partner agencies need to do more orientation and sensitization sessions on the need and importance of Open Spaces for Emergency Preparedness.
  • Using these datasets as baseline information-Next step involves the development of these locations into parks, emergency shelters, & any other purposes for their protection and preservations.

In summary, taking an inclusive approach to using drones in disaster response and preparedness will increase its efficiency. For example, drone data should be adapted to local languages that leaders and partner agencies can easily read and understand. In addition, a capacity-building element should be integrated into drone projects to educate and train local communities about drones for efficient disaster response.