Drones: An integral part of disaster relief and recovery

During a Q&A with Kia Handley at ABC Newcastle, Managing Director and Founder Ross Anderson shares how drones are quickly becoming a necessity in search and rescue efforts and why.

When natural disasters strike, like floods that we’re seeing around New South Wales at the moment, or fire, you’ve seen that striking aerial vision of towns completely submerged by floodwater. Sometimes they’re still pictures. Sometimes they’re videos. Perhaps it’s the charred wasteland left after a bushfire has ripped through an area, from houses to bushland.

The search rescue operations during these times are supported by drones, not just for aerial pictures that can help map and survey the disaster, but also by carrying emergency supplies to areas that responders maybe can’t reach. Let’s talk a little bit more about an integral part of disaster relief and recovery that drones are playing. Ross Anderson is the founder of Aviassist, and he’s here to talk you through it.

“How can drones help us out during natural disasters?”

There are a number of different things that drones do during natural disasters.
The primary one that would come to mind would be in the search and rescue efforts. Being so portable, they’re quite commonly on the frontline vehicles. They can literally just grab the aircraft, pop it up, and have a quick emergency response when people are being swept away.

Then in post-disaster events, a damage assessment, which is a lot quicker than conventional means.

Is this a new capacity for drones?”

Not brand new. At the scale that we are seeing now, it is.

The disasters that we’re familiar with over the last sort of six to 10 months have been very well supported by drones. For instance, Fire and Rescue New South Wales recently trained 24 of their regional stations, which happened to be in places like Wentworth, Ballinard, Narrandera, Deniliquin, all those places that have since had substantial flooding.

What can drones do that we can’t?”

I think it’s perspective. Even when we see media use drones, it gives that depth. The ability to live-stream data back to those that are making the decisions is key to a response.

Currently, we see information live-streamed back to the emergency control centres that otherwise would take a considerable amount of time to get assets out in the field to get that same information. It’s really the speed of information drones make possible.

There’s a variety of different roles within disaster relief that would need access to aerial assets in a hurry. By having those assets quickly available by a wide range of people, not a specialised bunch of pilots, for instance, it does really increase the speed at which we can get that information.

“Are drones’ capabilities affected by natural disasters?”

Over time, manufacturers have built aircraft that can withstand imperfect conditions. If we did go back five years ago, realistically, the post-disaster survey was possible. During the actual disaster itself, we would’ve been limited by having essentially computers in the rain.

Since then, yeah, there’s been a lot of development in both the platform itself and the sensors. Now, we can get up in the rain and they’re more wind resistant than they used to be.

“Are you flying different drones than photographers?”

Yes, very different.

Obviously, you can go down to JB Hi-Fi and pick up something cheap, but these drones require a license and are a bit more complicated. For instance, a lot of the sensors on even the basic stuff they’re using for search and rescue would have thermal capabilities, 200 times zoom, ability to laser range and track vehicles, for instance. Yeah, definitely not your JB Hi-Fi hobby drone.

“What do you see the future being of drones in this space?”

At the moment, a lot of industry is locked into the visual line of sight. While we do get, say, a kilometre range away from an object, it still does revolve around people being in the field, as I said, that live streaming back to the emergency control centre.

In the future, it’s a bit like the internet of things. The aircraft itself is just an asset.

I would envisage that there will be assets parked around the state, which will actually be controlled by that control centre. We’ve been doing trials over the last 12 months to make sure that becomes a reality.

We are seeing in different spaces as well, I know for the armed forces as well, lots of remote operation of drones. Is that something that we can start to look into, or that’s like a whole other level of sophistication and ability?

No. Even in a commercial aspect, there’s now a drone in a box, which essentially has an aircraft living in a box that charges itself, and can be controlled remotely. Same in the military aspects, they’ve been doing that for a long time. In the civilian world, it’s kind of the 2023 aspirations of a lot of organisations.

“Are there risks in flying drones in disaster areas?”

There is. I believe that they’re managed effectively. What we’re seeing now is a number of different emergency responders turning up to, say, the Lismore floods. It’s really now the coordination effort to say, “This is the organisation that’s controlling the effort, and anybody else coming in is in liaison with them.”

There are volunteer organisations that go out with drones as well. Obviously, we don’t want to discourage that engagement, but it doesn’t need to be coordinated effectively. There are a lot of typical aviation means of doing that. On the whole, no, but in a one-offs type mentality, everyone does really need to be connected and communicate with each other.

“What are we sort of training do you need to fly drones in natural disasters?”

The typical training that we would do is five days long and equips the participant with the knowledge and licence to fly the aircraft. It can take longer, but typically, it’ll be a five-day programme. That would then allow us to hand over someone that’s ready for the operational-type capability.

It’s sort of like the building blocks for a really basic, having aircraft within a visual line of sight. Obviously, as we lead into all those more complex operations, there’s further training involved with that.

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