When aid workers arrived after Typhoon Haiyan hit Southeast Asia in 2013, they brought something new to help the areas battered by rain and gale force winds: unmanned aerial drones.
One of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, Typhoon Haiyan left more than 6,000 people dead, and it destroyed vast swaths of roads — making it impossible for aid workers to reach people stranded in remote locations. So a few organizations started using drones to survey the landscape. The images they recorded helped aid workers locate missing persons and also create 2D and 3D maps to help community leaders understand the hardest hit areas.
“One of the big issues for us was to have imagery to look at,” Kate Chapman, executive director of open-source mapping project Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, said during a panel at the South by Southwest festival, which brings together techies, filmmakers and musicians. “Drones can take pictures at a very low cost.”
Typhoon Haiyan marked a milestone for drone use in disaster relief — the first full-scale use of UAVs to help locate victims and chart high-risk areas.
Up till now, drones of various kinds have been known mostly as fun flying toys, high-tech surveillance machines or unmanned planes that fire missiles. More than 200,000 consumer drones were sold worldwide per month in 2014, according to market analyst firm Frost and Sullivan, and that number is expected to double this year. But an increasing number of aid organizations are also looking at drones as a way to solve some of their toughest challenges.
Since Typhoon Haiyan, aid organizations have deployed drones to help in other natural disasters, including the 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck China in August and Typhoon Ruby that hit Southeast Asia last December.
“When people see the word ‘drone’ they immediately think killer robot,” said Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute. “But that’s not what’s going on here.”
Organizations around the world are finding intriguing new ways to use drones for the greater good. Kenya, for example, is deploying drones to help stop the poaching of rhinos and elephants. La Fondation Bundi, also in Kenya, has launched its Flying Donkey Challenge to build cargo drones that can deliver heavy loads of medicine to remote villages by 2020. And the Syria Airlift Project aims to use drones to drop food and medicine to communities isolated by the warring factions.
Then there’s the use of drones, now in a test phase, to locate unexploded bombs and landmines from past wars. Unexploded ordinances, or UXOs, can kill or maim decades after they’ve been dropped or buried. In fact, landmines kill up to 20,000 people every year. Many are children, according to the United Nations.
More than 100 million landmines are still buried around the world, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. It could take 1,000 years to clear those minds at the current rate of removal. It’s a slow and dangerous job, where workers typically use metal detectors, trained dogs or simply prod the soil.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com