GlobalMedic, an international relief organization based in Toronto, helps communities around the world recover when disaster strikes. When a massive earthquake devastated Nepal in late April 2015, GlobalMedic assembled its team — including three UAS donated by local manufacturer Aeryon Labs. Increasing Human Potential talked to GlobalMedic CEO Rahul Singh about its partnership, the team’s work in Nepal and the benefits of using UAS in disaster relief situations.
What were the challenges that GlobalMedic encountered in the past that have been made easier by using a UAS?
Rahul Singh: During the response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, we had to pause aid distributions several times due to angry mobs of people blocking roads. Some roads were entirely washed out or blocked with debris, forcing response teams to turn back and find an alternative route. If we had a unit in front of our convoy coming into Port-au-Prince, we would have saved so much time avoiding roads blocked by downed wires and collapsed buildings, burning tires and rioting crowds. The hours lost likely cost lives as we were delayed in setting up our field hospital.
After our experience in Haiti, we reached out to Aeryon Labs, a technology provider, to help us. They donate the UAVs and training for our pilots. UAVs serve as invaluable tools to support the delivery of humanitarian aid, especially in the case of rapid onset disasters.
GlobalMedic currently manages a fleet of four UAVs, which are flown on disaster response missions internationally. Three are currently in Nepal and will be flown over the worst affected regions.
What have been some of your past successes using UAS? For example, how did you use the technology this past winter after the typhoon in the Philippines?
We used it to fly sorties and map out areas that were damaged. We were able to identify blocked and damaged roads, show where populations had moved and assessed the number of homes that were damaged. We shared the info with local government, responding agencies and local emergency services.
Does the way you use the UAS vary depending on the type of disaster, or do you have a standard procedure that you have adopted?
It is a work in progress, but we have a plan to use them to make the delivery of aid more efficient.
Could you describe how you will be using UAS in Nepal? What data are you collecting, and how will you analyze it?
Our UAV team is tasked with aerially mapping crisis-affected areas, then compiling and cross-stitching the collected imagery into maps that provide a superior snapshot of needs on the ground. Identifying flooded areas, obstructed roads, population movements and damaged infrastructure, the possibilities for UAV use in an emergency setting are extensive. Equipped with thermal cameras, UAVs can identify people trapped or injured in a disaster zone, supporting life-saving search-and-rescue efforts.
Does GlobalMedic collaborate with any other organizations to share the information it collects? How does the information from the UAS help the work on the ground?
The units record and transmit information in real time, helping to assign priority areas for humanitarian response and identifying issues related to accessibility. These maps are vital in the assessment of humanitarian needs and, in turn, the coordination of an effective and efficient humanitarian response. We create detailed maps as well to share. All mapping information and results will be shared with the U.N., the Nepalese government and all coordinating agencies responding in Nepal. The aim is to disseminate this invaluable information so the humanitarian network can coordinate effectively, eliminate gaps and overlaps in programming and save more lives.
What are the benefits to using a UAS after natural disasters as opposed to satellite imagery?
Satellite imagery is expensive, hard to access and not necessarily as detailed compared to low-altitude UAV flying.
What do you see as the future of UAS in aid work? Do you think that they will become more commonplace as the technology evolves?
I believe they will be a regular tool used by most agencies. If I call 911 and ask for help and hang up, the emergency center knows it has to send me help, but might not be sure exactly of what to send. This can lead to a waste of resources. They glean information from the caller to determine what to send to be efficient. Nepal has called for a global 911 response. This technology will provide the information to allocate resources and make the delivery of aid more efficient.