Victoria Markovitz
Using Drones to Build Resilience
Victoria MarkovitzMay 1, 2015

Jessica Lea/DFID

Jessica Lea/DFID

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones have been in the news a lot recently for everything from military uses to their potential to deliver commercial packages. A recently released report sponsored by the American Red Cross examined two additional uses for drones—aiding in disaster response and building resilience.

As I explained in a blog post in February, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been proceeding cautiously with commercial drone regulations because of safety and security concerns. The American Red Cross report recommends the FAA grant special approval for the use of drones in disaster response efforts in the United States.

Drones are already being used as part of emergency response overseas, including in relief efforts in Nepal, which was recently hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Drones can reach areas helicopters can’t to aid in search and rescue missions, are more cost effective and readily deployable than manned aircraft, and can assess the state of infrastructure to improve the safety and effectiveness of emergency responders.

Drones can also play a key role in strengthening a community’s resilience before a disaster hits. The report provided examples of how drones can assist with resilience efforts:

  • Risk Assessment: Drones can provide risk assessments to help areas better prepare for disasters. For example, a major California power utility—with permission from the FAA—used drones to assess potential hazards, such as overhanging tress, along 26,000 miles of transmission lines.
  • Mapping and Planning: Drones can generate maps much more cost-effectively than more traditional methods. Up-to-date maps can help emergency personnel coordinate response efforts, identify disaster-prone areas, flag critical infrastructure, and see early warning signs before a disaster hits. Maps also help insurance companies assist customers with mitigating risk.

There are still obstacles–such as privacy concerns and technological gaps–that need to be addressed before drones can become “part of the regular disaster-response toolkit.” However, the report recommends the FAA take actions such as developing an emergency process for on-demand drone operation, encouraging data sharing, and developing best practices for drone operation in disaster response and resilience efforts.

“When individuals, businesses, and communities are able to understand and manage risks and plan effectively, they reduce overall damage and losses,” states the report, which was also sponsored by insurance groups and airplane manufacturers, and included public sector participants such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FAA.

This statement is in line with findings from the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), which advises the President on the resilience and security of critical infrastructure sectors. Nexight Group provided technical and analytical support for the Council’s 2013 report, “Strengthening Regional Resilience.” One finding in the report stated, “A community’s capacity to withstand a disaster is improved when regional emergency managers engage non-profit and community groups as critical partners in disaster preparation, response, and recovery.”

Incorporating new partners and approaches, such as drones, into community resilience efforts could help minimize the impacts of a disaster and enhance a region’s ability to respond after events. Commercial drone operation rules may still be a few years away, but encouraging further testing of drones could ensure communities understand their full potential to strengthen resilience.