GEOG 858
Spatial Data Science for Emergency Management

Emerging Theme: GIS and UAVs


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

We are probably all familiar with drones, or UAVs, as they are virtually everywhere these days. 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 You may also be interested to look at another one of the GIS courses we offer, GEOG 892: Geospatial Applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). It is focused explicitly on how UAVs and GIS working together.

UAVs for Emergency Management

In the emergency management context, UAVs are already used in a variety of ways and new applications continue to emerge.

UAVs are capable of surveying areas very quickly to provide imagery to - or 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. It is worth noting that UAV footage combined with new approaches to image processing means emergency responders can have high-quality imagery and maps in a matter of hours rather than days. 

Click on the image below to see a great example of how UAV footage was used to create a compelling story and reference document about the 2018 Camp Fire in California.

Link to the Camp Fire Story Map from Butte County
Cover page to an app developed by the Butte County that provides information about the Camp Fire, including drone images and footage, evacuation information, before and after, and debris removal details. Web apps or story maps are increasingly being used to get critical information out to the public and state holders before, during and after disaster events. 

Drone Mapping of the California Camp Fire

The following 2:28 minute video provides a good illustration of the links between drone mission planning/field operations, image processing, and delivery of products for use in response and recovery activities. Note the time frames involved in this, and how much shorter they are than other traditional aerial or remote sensing efforts. However, the time required to process imagery from those platforms is rapidly shortening as well. 

UAV operations during and following 2018 Camp Fire in California.
Click here for a transcript of the Disaster drone mapping of the Camp Fire video.

GREG CRUTSINGER: My name's Greg Crutsinger. I was the drone data analyst for the Public Safety UAS teams associated with the tragic campfire in Paradise, California over the past week. I was called in to be the drone data coordinator, so playing the role of coordinating the data side of around 15 to 16 public safety teams made up of law enforcement and fire.

Over a period of two days or so of full flights and another half day of kind of preliminary flights, we were able to map about 26.2 square miles or around 17,000 acres over about 518 drone flights using primarily DJI Phantom 4 Pros. That produced around 70,000 photos, representing about 460 gigs of information. From air, those data were run by runners down to San Francisco and processed by drone deploy and turned around in 24 hours. So each day, they would process for 24 hours. And it would be done by the end of-- so by 48 hours, we were finished with all of those data.

Around 12 hours later or so, that was all accumulated into one big map and put online and made public for public agency use for local and state and federal agencies to get very high-resolution information for the town of Paradise. It's also going to be used by utilities and insurance companies and then, of course, the residents that are impacted by this tragic event. So there's lots and lots of lessons that were learned from this event. And those will be shared over time. I think that the drones finally really showed that they're a valuable tool and just another part of these kinds of disaster responses.

So it's Thanksgiving Day. I got my coffee. I finally slept a little bit. I haven't slept in about seven days.

The information can be found on the Butte County website. And I'm going to take it easy. So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Credit: Greg Crutsinger

We are all pretty familiar with the use of drones for imagery, but here are a few additional emerging uses for drones in emergency stations. The next video is a bit of a ‘vision’ for drone use and this is followed by a few specific examples of how drones are being used in emergency response. 

The following 3:30 minute video: Disaster Response Support with Drones, provides a nice overview.

Click here for a transcript of the Disaster response support with drones video.

PRESENTER: Numerous hikers have gone missing after a strong storm yesterday. Currently, three people are still missing. They were hiking separately on hiking trail 34. Drone special teams start the search with search parties and drones from the nearest farm.



[ON SCREEN TEXT WHILE DRONES ARE FLYING AND RESCUE TEAM SEARCHES AND REVIEWS THE DRONE FOOTAGE: Disaster response support with Drones. Mission and path planning. Aerial Surveillance. Image Processing. Wireless multimedia communications. Drone-based delivery. Coordination and swarming. Autonomous navigation Human drone interaction. Precise landing.]

Credit: Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt

Payload Drones

It’s not just about Amazon delivering goods to your door… Payload drones are increasingly being used in crises as illustrated in the following videos from WeRobotics and Zipline.

Watch WeRobotics Amazon Rainforest Cargo Drones (2:35 minutes)

Amazon Rainforest Cargo Drones
Click here for a transcript of the Amazon Rainforest Cargo Drones Video.

NARRATOR: The Amazon rainforest is home to thousands of indigenous communities spread across very remote areas. Their only means of transportation is by riverboat. It can take many hours, and even days to reach the next village.

When local doctors run out of medicines, new supplies have to be shipped by boat. So for example, if a villager is bitten by a snake and a doctor is out of antivenom, the villager may not live to see the medicine when it finally arrives. Snake bites are a major concern in the Amazon. Doctors report an average of 45 snake bites per month in the Contamana region alone.

WeRobotics was invited by the Peruvian Ministry of Health and local doctors to explore whether drones could support medical delivery efforts in the rainforest. WeRobotics Peru Flying Labs took the lead in the field testing and were highly successful.

JUAN BERGELUND: Actually, we were able to transport medicine, the antivenom, and medicine from the Contamana city to Pampa Hermosa city.

NARRATOR: The cold pack with the antivenom was placed into the drone and then hand launched. It took the drone 35 minutes to reach the village of Pampa Hermosa, about 40 kilometers away. A regular boat would have required six hours to reach the village. In Pampa Hermosa, villagers witnessed the first ever drone delivery in their village. The local doctors asked a boy to simulate a snakebite so they could demonstrate the importance of drone deliveries. That night, the drone flew back to Contamana.

JUAN BERGELUND: We flew both sample a special refrigerated vessel, and then we flew back to Contamana and they were able to get that one. We go to the main square and we show to the whole population about the importance of using these UAVs for humanitarian reasons.

NARRATOR: The first ever cargo drone deliveries in the Amazon rainforest were a success. As a result, the Ministry of Health and local doctors have invited WeRobotics to carry out additional deliveries to even more remote villages.


Credit: WeRobotics

If you have some time it is worth checking out WeRobotics on their website or YouTube. Patrick Meier, the author of Digital Humanitarians, is also a co-founder of WeRobotics.

Now watch the 4:05 minute video about airdrops of medical supplies to African Villages.

Zipline drones airdrop medical supplies to African villages
Click here for a transcript of the Zipline drones airdrop medical supplies to African villages video.

Zipline drones airdrop medical supplies to African villages


KELLER RINAUDO: Zipline designs, manufacturers, and operates robotic aircraft that deliver medicine to people in hard-to-reach places and save lives as a result. We primarily work with governments, particularly governments in the developing world that often have challenges delivering medical products to people who live in rural or isolated communities, things like blood, rabies vaccine, normal vaccines, oxytocin-- things that if patients need, you really need it in that moment because your life is on the line. We started working on Zipline as a product about 2 1/2 years ago. And we are actually just beginning to operate at a national scale in Rwanda this month. And so that represents the world's first drone delivery service that's actually operating in a routine way and at a national scale.

DRONE PILOT: Kigali Tower, Zip 24, how do you read me?

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: [INAUDIBLE] contact 24, Kagli Tower. I read you 5 by 5.

KELLER RINAUDO: So we're standing by a launcher which has a Zip on it. And the Zip is actually ready to fly and go make a delivery. The reason we use launchers and the recovery system-- that we're going to look at in a sec-- is that these vehicles don't have landing gear on them. And it's actually not possible to build a runway in every place that we might want to deploy a system. So the Zip basically attaches to the launcher here, and then this launcher will tension. There's a bungee in the middle of this structure. And then when you press that button, it will basically accelerate the vehicle. And the vehicle's flying autonomously and ready to make a delivery.

LORA KOLODNY: Why was it designed like this? What were some of the safety considerations?

KELLER RINAUDO: So as I mentioned, one the challenges of everything that we do is that if you want to be able to fly beyond line of sight and you want to fly over populated areas-- which are two things that oftentimes regulators are uncomfortable with-- you really have to be able to show that these kinds of vehicles can operate at a level of safety that's equivalent to a general aviation aircraft.

LORA KOLODNY: Where are these things set up-- the launchers?

KELLER RINAUDO: So basically, the launcher, the recovery system, as well as the shipping containers all form the distribution center. And we set up a distribution center usually near a medical supply warehouse so we don't have to stock all the medicine ourselves. Really, the distribution center is designed to be kind of a magical technology that enables that warehouse to make hundreds of deliveries-- instant deliveries-- per day to any location within a 75-kilometer radius.

Today in Rwanda, we're focused exclusively on blood. And that might sound simple, but it's actually really complicated. The government of Rwanda delivers about 65,000 units of blood a year. 50% of that is going toward moms who are suffering from postpartum hemorrhage. And then, 30% is going to our kids under the age of five who suffer from severe anemia due to malaria.

So this is really important. It's a complete emergency. Someone's life is on the line when you need one of these products. But it's very difficult to stock these products reliably because you have red blood cells, platelets, plasma. You need all three. They all have different storage requirements, different shelf lives. And then with red blood cells, you've got eight different types-- A, B, AB, and O, and positive and negative Rh factor of each.

So it's basically an impossible logistics challenge. And what's so great about this is it allows them to go from trying to make these impossible predictions of what's needed where to keep the blood in one place and send it when you have a patient whose life is in danger. It's a vast simplification of the supply chain that actually saves the government money and can save thousands of lives in the long run.

LORA KOLODNY: We talk about drone delivery for convenience. And it's a lot of fun flying a Slurpee across the desert or a burrito to a college campus, but Zipline has the potential to save lives.

Credit: TedCrunch

Cooperating Drones

Drones are also able to work together to complete tasks. You may have seen the insane “swarm” drone light display at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang in 2018. Other applications are being developed such as the three drones working together to build a rope bridge that can support humans in the following (3:26 minute video).

Building a rope bridge with flying machines (3:26)

Building a rope bridge with flying machines. Please note there is no narration in the video.
Credit: Gramazio Kohler Research

AI and Drones

Finally, I’d like you to consider how drones are being incorporated with other emerging technology such as artificial intelligence. In the video example below (from Australia!) drones are able to identify swimmers, swimmers in need, sharks, stingrays, and many other things. (2:05 minutes)

Artificial Intelligence Processing at the Edge: The Little Ripper Lifesaver UAV
Click for a transcript of the Little Ripper Lifesaver video.



EDDIE BENNET: Australia has a very long coastline, and that presents us with some unique challenges. Drones provide us with a great opportunity to get a lifesaving service outside of where we traditionally have those services now. In 2015, we used the first drone to fly along a beach and look for people in trouble and to save lives.

We used the drones in three ways. The first is for surveillance. So we're able to get vision and understand situations, understand when people might be getting into trouble. We have warning devices, loudspeakers fitted to the drone so that we can actually warn people that they are about to get into trouble or what to do if they are in trouble. And the third thing is that we can intervene and deploy an automatically inflatable rescue device from the drone which can support up to four people. And it keeps them afloat in the surf, in the water, until they can be rescued.

Earlier this year, on the Central Coast, a sandbank collapsed and 12 people were washed into deep water. A lifesaving drone was sent to the area and quickly located exactly where they were. Lifesavers responded to the area very quickly and all 12 people were saved.

TONI BURKETT: If we could get that longer flying time, it would be really helpful for our job as lifeguards as well as being able to fly in all weather, such as high winds and rain, because that's when we're going to need that aerial perspective. And if the integration of the lifesaving technology in the drones could be improved, such as the sharks' water, that would be really helpful in our jobs as well.

EDDIE BENNET: So if we can use artificial intelligence to help us detect people and respond to situations, then that is going to be a wonderful opportunity to save lives. Little Ripper Lifesaver has very advanced lifesaving drones. Intel has very advanced artificial intelligence. Imagine a world if we combine those two together. What a great opportunity to save a life anywhere in the world.

Credit: Little Ripper Lifesaver