file under: Emergency Response, Government, Federal Government

Are UAVs the Future of Disaster Response?

In October 2015, the United States watched with concern as Hurricane Joaquin created floods in South Carolina at staggering 500-year event levels. The disaster’s impact for residents and businesses is difficult to contemplate, but one innovation that gave us a better perspective was the “reporting” done by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAV flyovers of flood-affected areas have been widely shared by news organizations and social media. Our newfound ability to see from the sky not only helps us understand the scope of damage, but, more vitally, it points to the potential of UAVs as a powerful tool for disaster response.

The advantages over traditional methods of assessment and search in the immediate aftermath of a disaster are evident. Affected areas are often inaccessible due to damage or flooding. Helicopters can survey a hazardous area, but they are expensive to operate and cannot fly in bad weather, which is often a defining aspect of a natural disaster. Both on-ground and in-air surveys by response teams present potential hazards to humans. By contrast, UAVs can be flown in bad weather, at low altitudes and at no hazard to rescue teams. And compared to similarly safe satellite imagery, UAV-captured data is faster, higher resolution and not subject to cloud cover.

Already adept at flyovers to collect large amounts of data, UAVs can use GPS and video or still cameras to accurately provide information to response teams in real time. The applications are myriad. Not only can they help teams to understand the status of a given area and where rescue efforts need to be directed, UAVs can also help response teams assess physical damage and hazards – work that is done today by humans carried around by car and helicopter. UAVs can fly repeatedly over the perimeter of a coastal or riverine flood and track the water peaks to identify the demarcation of the flood. They can fly along city streets in an inaccessible area, aid in initial damage estimates to property and identify the location of debris. If UAVs can collect imagery to estimate the volume of debris, they will become an even more powerful tool.

The more efficiently that local and state governments, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can collect data, the more effectively they can respond and the better information they can provide to the public. In this sense, UAVs have game-changing potential.

Perhaps the most-publicized experimentation with UAVs in recent years is the work of companies like to develop payload delivery. That technological use has intriguing potential for response efforts as well. In fact, Google has an advanced research & development effort called Project Wing aimed at delivering aid packages to isolated individuals or groups in the aftermath of a disaster – packages containing medicines, batteries, defibrillators and more.

We are already seeing UAVs put into the field in disasters outside of the United States—in Haiti, the Philippines, the Balkans and China. Relevant agencies are actively discussing the potential of this technology, and weighing the challenges, to craft appropriate policies. For example, the International Association of Fire Chiefs believes “the potential benefits [for emergency response] are irrefutable.” As discussions, potential policies and UAV technology evolve, we are moving closer to a day when UAVs are a core part of the post-event response arsenal.

Scott W. Stone, PE, CFM has extensive experience in hazard mitigation and disaster response, recovery, and mitigation. His areas of expertise include water quality, surface water hydrology and hydraulics, flood control, hazard risk analysis, and disaster recovery and mitigation. He is presently working on FEMA’s Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Technical Assistance Contracts.