Nearly every week there’s a report in the news of another natural disaster somewhere in the world. Last week there was an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. Hurricane Michael is currently bearing down on Florida, not even a month after we saw hurricane Florence hit North Carolina with significant damage. The natural response in these situations is to look for ways to help those impacted, and interestingly, one answer to this humanitarian impulse comes in the shape of a drone.

Drones are increasingly being used in disaster relief efforts, not only in the US, but worldwide, and perhaps especially in regions lacking advanced infrastructure and emergency response institutions.

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Natural Disasters and Drones

Fire: This past December and January, wildfires swept through large areas of southern California. Local state fire agency CAL FIRE worked together with the California Air National Guard, utilizing drones to collect large amounts of data that it would have been nearly impossible for ground teams to acquire in a timely manner. This data allowed firefighters to pinpoint areas of quickly progressing fire, to improve firefighting efficiency. DJI-conducted research in 2016 showed that rescue teams utilizing drones were able to help locate people in need of help much more quickly, and as a result were much faster at getting them needed support.

Hurricanes: 2017 is considered by many to be a landmark year for drones and hurricane relief efforts. At Interdrone 2018, keynote speaker, FAA administrator Michael Huerta spoke on the subject, saying, “Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.” In last year’s hurricane season, one response team led by Dr. Robin Murphy of Texas A&M used drones to assess flood damage, and predict areas of future flood risk. Other organizations are working to mobilize Part 107 pilots and Part 333 exempt businesses to work together on emergency response. The ability of drones to quickly find areas of greatest need is an invaluable resource to first responders.

Earthquakes: Fall of 2017 saw a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City, leaving much of the city in ruins. DroneSky, a drone mapping company based in Mexico City, jumped to the aid of the city by creating a map of the hard-hit Xochimilco district, and individual maps of specific buildings that had sustained major damage. This task would have been nearly impossible without the aid of drone technology. The maps were then made available to city planners and architects to be used in reconstruction efforts.

The uses and usefulness of drones is limited only by the imagination, but here are a few features of drones that make them an ideal tool for natural disaster response efforts.

Search and Rescue

Thermal imaging: In nighttime searches, or in areas of dense foliage, or in the case of victims trapped in rubble, search and rescue operations can make use of thermal imaging cameras. These cameras allow operators to easily spot humans due to their body heat, and the built-in GPS systems standard on most drones can pinpoint the exact location of victims.

Spotlights: One basic add-on that is immensely useful in search and rescue operations is a simple spotlight. For night-time rescue efforts, a light attached to a drone, in tandem with live video streaming, makes it practical and straightforward to search large areas in a short space of time.

Zoom cameras: In situations where a specific individual needs to be identified out of a crowd (or amidst rubble or other background distractions), the ability of most drone cameras to zoom in enables easy and accurate facial identification.

Relief Aid

Payload drop systems: Floods, damaged roads, building rubble – so many things can get in the way of emergency responders getting needed supplies to people trapped or injured. Drones can easily rise above these obstacles and have the ability to carry significant payloads, and then drop them where they are needed.

WiFi/cell hotspots: Communication often becomes an issue when significant infrastructure damage has occurred as a result of an earthquake or hurricane. With their ability to fly tethered indefinitely, drones offer a unique ability to create temporary WiFi or cell hotspots to allow urgent communication needs to be met, allowing help to get to the places where it is needed most.


3D imaging/mapping: Many drone data processing software programs, for example, DroneDeploy, or Pix4D, can make use of data gathered by almost any standard off-the-shelf drone to produce high-quality 3D images and maps. In disaster-stricken areas, these maps can be instrumental in locating and assessing structural damage to buildings and other infrastructure elements. This information can be used in search and rescue efforts, as well as in beginning the major effort of reconstruction.

As drones become more mainstream, and as their technological capabilities continue to advance, we will no doubt see more emerging uses for drones in disaster relief.

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