High-flying drones and digital data crunchers are teaming up to find victims of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. These technologies give rescuers on the ground better information about where people may be trapped and how best to send supplies and first aid to remote villages beyond the reach of trucks or helicopters.
“What authorities are trying doing to do is to figure out what is going on,” said Robin Murphy, director of the Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University. “Then you have humanitarian relief organizations trying to meet individual needs on the ground. They are asking, 'Is this place flooded? What about roads and transportation here?'”
Murphy says unmanned aerial vehicles have been used since 2004 for eight previous earthquakes, mostly for reconnaissance and structural mapping of crumbled buildings.
In 2010, during the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the U.S. Navy also used underwater robots to clear the harbour in Port-Au-Prince so ships could bring in responders and supplies without running aground or destroying existing piers. The Chinese military used small UAVs to find victims of the 2013 Lushan and the 2014 Yunnan earthquakes, according to Murphy.
The Aeryon drones being sent to Nepal are equipped with thermal cameras to help locate survivors by detecting body heat, as well as the company’s newest digital zoom camera that can see the details of human faces at 1,000 feet away. The team will also undertake aerial mapping of the affected areas, building 2-D and 3-D maps, for disaster teams.
Murphy said small flying UAVs have limitations. Backpack-sized drones are easy to carry into a disaster zone and to launch by hand, but they run on batteries and only have 30 minutes of flying time. With electricity to most of Nepal knocked out, that means relief teams have to haul in lots of spare juice.