• 06.20.12

A Kinder, Gentler Drone To Help With Disasters

OpenRelief’s semi-autonomous planes can fly into affected areas and relay information–about survivors or conditions–back to rescuers. Instead of bringing death from above, these drones could save lives.

Drones may be associated with death from the skies, but a new project is putting them to work for humanitarian aid. OpenRelief is trying to design open, modular, information solutions for disaster relief–including an automated, $1,000 drone that can fly itself into disaster zones and give information back to workers who can best use the information.


OpenRelief was inspired by the experience of trying to provide assistance to people in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, says Shane Coughlan, one of the project’s founders. “It was difficult to understand the situation on the ground and therefore to allocate resources,” he says. “A lot depended on verbal reports or handwritten maps. Even with the best will in the world, there was a distinct feeling that surely we could do better.” The project was born after a panel at LinuxCon Japan 2011.

Right now, the group has constructed two planes, with fully functional airframes built from off-the-shelf parts that are now preparing to be tested. Coughlan says the OpenRelief project is in a development cycle between now and December. As of this week, OpenRelief now has an official home at the Eshott Airfield in the U.K. where the first drone is being tested, says Coughlan.

The planes are semi-autonomous, which means they don’t need a human controller with a remote control. “They are loaded with a mission on the ground and they take off to complete the mission on their own,” says Coughlan. “That’s a little less dramatic than it sounds, given that what a mission really consists of is a series of GPS coordinates.” He explains that it’s a bit like telling a car navigation system where to go, and the car then having the ability to follow the selected route. In the future, the planes could respond to check out something that looked interesting, say, to take detailed pictures of a fire and relay them back.

The small shiny planes don’t hold cargo–they’re more into taking pictures than dropping bombs–but they are still flexible enough to help in many disaster scenarios. The biggest aid comes in knowing what the lay of the land is in critical areas, but the plane could also carry sensors to test radiation and weather conditions. In addition, the drones are versatile–they’re small enough to be launched from footpaths and smart enough to recognize roads, people, and smoke. “In the future you can have information platforms and many types of sensors working together to provide lots of disaster relief information,” says Coughlan. “Our robot plane is big, slow, and loud, and it has very little capacity for additional cargo. We want people to see this in the sky, and we want it to be a clear ‘we are coming for you’ message.”