GEOG 588
Planning GIS for Emergency Management

Emerging Theme: UAVs and DIY Drones


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

UAVs are remote controlled airplanes and helicopters that are capable of providing surveillance and attack capabilities for military and civilian uses (no attack capabilities in the civilian case, unless you mount a potato gun). Their development grew out of the need for airborne reconnaissance on missions that are either too dangerous or too tedious for piloted aircraft. Today, UAVs have evolved to the point that some platforms are small enough to be easily deployed by a small support team, and require only a hand launch or a very short runway. They are often referred to more generically as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), as the vehicles themselves are just one piece of the overall puzzle in most geospatial workflows.

One example of portable and affordable UAV technology is the senseFly eBee. This is a promo video with silly music, but the demonstration of what this little UAV can do is pretty phenomenal. Firing up your laptop on a skislope is kind of ridiculous though:

A burgeoning community has evolved around the development of so-called "homebrew" UAV systems. You should take some time to check out what's happening on the DIY Drones community site where a large number of folks are sharing best practices, challenging each other to create better systems, and generally helping pave the way toward such systems becoming ubiquitous outside of traditional military / law enforcement settings. You may also be interested to have a look at the class we teach now focused explicitly on UAVs and GIS working together.

UAVs for Emergency Management

UAVs are capable of surveying large areas very quickly to provide imagery to other types of remotely-sensed data. Satellite data is always valuable and desirable, but satellites cannot always be overhead at the right times on demand. UAVs can be deployed very quickly and can be easily directed toward different areas as the situational picture develops.

During the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, Chinese researchers deployed small, lab-built UAVs to gather the first detailed pictures of the destruction. I've assembled slides from two presentations I saw on this topic at the 2008 China-US Workshop on Geo-Collaborative Crisis Management. Take a look at this PDF depicting what Minhe Ji from East China Normal University and Jianhua Gong from the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications in the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed about how they used UAVs in the aftermath of the earthquake. Then reflect on what you just saw demonstrated from the senseFly folks. Amazing how things have changed, right? What do you think will happen in the next five years?

Even more radical than the senseFly example above are the possibilities that can be had with really simple platforms like balloons. Have a look at Matthew Lippincott's overview of what can be done with very little training and web-based image stitching software:

Finally, one more example from response efforts for floods in North Dakota in 2011 shows how the National Guard is using UAVs (toward the middle of the video) as part of an effort to develop a coordinated common operational picture:

Deliverables for this week's emerging theme:

  • Post a comment that describes how UAVs and DIY Drones might impact GIS systems we can design for Emergency Management. Consider public engagement as well - you saw the balloon example here - what will happen when citizens begin making their own community map resources during a disaster?
  • Then, I'd like you to offer additional insight, critique, a counter-example, or something else constructive in response to one of your colleagues' posts.
  • Brownie points for linking to other technology demos, pictures, blog posts, etc... that you've found to enrich your posts so that we may all benefit.

NOTE: Respond to this assignment in the Lesson 2 Emerging Theme Discussion Forum in Canvas.