Drones as first responders

Because of the heartbreaking Turkish and Syrian disaster brought about by the resent earthquake in these two countries, we figured this might be the time to look at how drone technology can be applied to disaster areas and act as part of the first response crew to very effective outcomes.

This also comes hot on the heels of the declaration of a state of disaster by the South African government following the floods that hits parts of the country in the last few weeks.

The provinces of Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape were the most affected by the floods, which were brought on by heavy rainfall as a result of the La Nina weather phenomenon.

In light of the latest devastation, which also follows flooding in KwaZulu Natal Province last April, South Africa Flying Labs – the country’s custodian of WeRobotics’ drone and robotics technology franchise – immediately went on the ground in response.

In collaboration with franchise owner QP Drone Tech, UNICEF South Africa and Santam Insurance, the drone start-up used its unmanned aerial vehicles to map and assess the damage caused by heavy rainfall on the Sjwetla settlements along the Jukskei River in Alexandra this week.

“This project, is a follow up of the Turning Data into Action (TDIA) project that we carried out last year (June 2022) when we mapped an area in Alexandra to identify vulnerable areas that are most likely to be affected by disasters such as floods and fire,” South Africa Flying Labs said in a statement.

“The TDIA project is an initiative by WeRobotics that gave us an opportunity to use the data that we generated to inform planning and decision making to reduce the impact of disasters in future.

“More than anything, it also gave us a great platform to be able to do this with the involvement of local young people, community members, local authorities, strategic partners, and relevant stakeholders.

“In our intent to strengthen emergency preparedness and response, we surveyed 146 hectares using drone technology to confirm previous findings and assess the damage caused by the torrential rains.

“As drones are progressively being deployed in disaster situations, this gets to show that not only can they be used during disaster to assess and quantify damage, monitor recovery efforts and reconstruction activities.”

As we reported a few days ago, we know there are drone teams on the ground – at least drone teams from Swede-based drone-hailing platform Globhe – in Turkey right now, helping recovery teams to speed up their efforts as much as they can.

As explained by Globhe founder, the drones in this case help identify areas that need to be prioritised as well as help with the search and rescue efforts. Of course, there are tragic times where searches will result in only recovery.

“In the event of natural disasters, we sometimes send out our operators even before the requests arrive so that we have the image data in place,” Globhe founder and chief executive Helena Samsioe said at the time.

“The sooner we can get the information and make it available to humanitarian organisations, the better decisions they can make. Drones can deliver high-resolution images and data unlike satellite imagery which is usually not detailed enough. When the emergency rescue phase is over, there will be a construction phase of the infrastructure, which roads and bridges require action.”

Ms Samisoe has the right of it. They may not have the power to stop disaster from happening, but drones have done well so far in warning people of the impending danger and also playing an important role in the recovery efforts.

South Africa Flying Labs were hard at work in Alexandra. Picture: SA Flying Labs

They were there in February last year when Cyclone Anna ravaged parts of Malawi; afterwards, drone technician Dumisani Kaliati led an assessment team to collect aerial data of the affected area and map the flood-affected spot around the usually busy Kamuzu Road in the town of Chikwawa in southern Malawi.

Kaliati said the drone imagery was immediately able to determine that an area surrounding Kamuzu bridge was particularly problematic as the road had been destroyed by floods in three places, rendering the flow traffic between Chikwawa and Blantyre impossible.

“The fact the road was cut meant emergency supplies couldn’t reach affected families in Chikwawa and Nsanje,” said Kaliati.

“In total we mapped 26 hectares of land in three hours. Drones provide a quick, cost-effective way of collecting high-quality geospatial data, which was used to generate high-quality maps. These maps contain useful features such as geographical coordinates and land elevation details, useful in decision making on issues like where to locate and build emergency shelters.

“The images provided a bird’s-eye view of the affected area, which has been crucial to the emergency response. It gives the planners a realistic picture of the problem at hand and helps rescue workers to be more effective.”

The drones had also been put in to work in 2019 to lead assessment and recovery efforts following another cyclone devastation, this time in Zimbabwe, where Cyclone Idai destroyed infrastructure washed away vast swathes of land, left 341 people dead and nearly 18,000 more homeless.

In the aftermath. the country’s disaster response body, the Civil Protection Unity, then adopted drones as a permanent implement in its inventory.

In recognition of the work drones do in helping rescue people from life and death situations, world leading drone manufacturer DJI has established the DJI Drone Rescue Map, a live map where people and organisations can document cases where drones played a significant part in saving people’s lives around the world.

The map tracks more than 300 incidents when police, firefighters, rescue squads, and bystanders have used drones to save people from danger since the first known rescue in 2013.

You can also check out the below case study of the Chula Vista Police Department in the USA, that has integrated drone technology as part of its first response efforts.

The case study originally appeared on 911Security.

How are drones helping first responders?

  • Faster search and rescue
  • Crime prevention and simulation
  • Disaster readiness and response

Not only do drones make the work of first responders quicker and safer, but the public receives much better response services, potentially saving the lives of first responders and the citizens they serve.  

Law enforcement and public safety agencies are significantly benefiting from using drones as first responders. More and more departments are adopting drones as a must-have device in their modern tool belt to better protect and serve their communities. 

Drones have become more effective, more affordable, and easier to fly in recent years. Thus, making UAS a realistic option to keep responders safer and provide opportunities for missions that manned aircraft couldn’t manoeuvre through, such as exploring inside buildings and tunnels. Drones as a first responder is the natural progression of law enforcement using drones in their daily operations.

Use Cases for Drones as First Responder

  • search-and-rescue missions
  • tactical surveillance
  • suspect tracking
  • traffic accident investigations
  • security sweeps 
  • wildfire surveillance and suppression
  • emergency calls

Nation’s model for Drones as First Responder: Chula Vista Police Department 

The department has become the nation’s model for police departments using drones. The Chula Vista PD’s Drone as First Responder (DFR) Program is a revolutionary drone use case intended to increase officer safety, enhance efficiency, and improve response times. The system involves deploying at-the-ready drones from the top of buildings within the city to calls for service and critical incidents. The drones are operated remotely via the internet by a unique position called the teleoperator.

The teleoperator is not just a drone pilot, but also a police officer with the ability to manage incidents and direct appropriate response. The DFR program provides first responders with decision-quality data and incident management before anyone on the ground is in harm’s way.

According to a report by The New York Times, each day, the Chula Vista police respond to as many as 15 emergency calls with a drone and have launched more than 4,100 drone flights since the program’s inception two years ago. Chula Vista PD can oversee roughly one-third of the city from two drone launch sites.

Departments across the US are starting to model DFR programs after Chula Vista’s successful program. Two other departments in California and one in Georgia have followed suit in developing DFR programs. The Brookhaven Police Department (BPD) in Georgia has created a First Responder Drone Program, modelled after Chula Vista’s successful program. This is the first DFR program east of the Mississippi. It aims to provide an efficient and effective way of gathering critical law enforcement information to respond to calls for service, emergencies, or criminal investigations.

Chula Vista has paved the way for law enforcement with its BVLOS program. As public safety agencies are granted more leniency to fly BVLOS, agencies will use drones as first responders in more missions.

The latest drone technology that allows for automated self-flying drones has the power to transform everyday policing, just as it can change package delivery, building inspections, and military reconnaissance. As drones become more sophisticated with automation, police departments will be able to do more with drones for everyday routine monitoring and responding to 911 calls.


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