Drone Operators Are Setting Their Sights On Disaster Relief

Drones can also save lives.

Drones are for more than military airstrikes and deliveries from Amazon. Drones–or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)–are also being used to help with humanitarian relief in disaster zones. But one challenge for organizations is finding people who know how to fly them.


“UAVs have a role to play in all phases of the disaster lifecycle,” says Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute. One of his initiatives at the institute is UAViators, an umbrella organization that connects volunteer drone operators with humanitarian aid groups, providing the volunteers with trainings and a code of conduct.

After a disaster, drones are mainly used by humanitarian organizations to get the lay of the land and assess damage by capturing aerial images. The images they produce are higher resolution, more up-to-date, faster, and cheaper than satellite imagery–all crucial benefits when you need to quickly respond to a disaster. The rapid response images help organizations prioritize their work in places most in need of supplies, emergency shelters, and other resources.

“One of the challenges we had in Typhoon Haiyan was that it took 64 hours to task the satelittes, acquire the imagery, process and analyze imagery, and share that with humanitarians on the ground,” says Meier. “And 64 hours is an incredibly long time when dealing with disasters. Whereas if you have folks on the ground who are ready to launch UAVs within an hour or two of a disaster then you’re talking orders of magnitude faster.”

Because of their higher resolution imagery, another advantage of using drones is that they can provide an accurate population count on the ground. This need became important after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, when there was massive internal displacement of people. “That’s hugely important because whenever you have large numbers of people moving you have issues around public health because of things like cholera and so forth,” says Meier.

Meier also notes that UAVs can be used for more than damage assessment and populations. Some humanitarian organizations use them to get the lay of the land before they even set up a base camp on site. Others have begun using drones to act as makeshift 3G and 4G cell towers in areas that have had Internet knocked out. More than a first-world convenience, access to the Internet could be life-saving if victims of a disaster can call for help or look up where to find food and medical supplies.

Meier, who recently released a book on how big data is informing disaster response, hopes that as commercially available drones become ubiquitous, there can be a network of volunteer drone pilots always ready to help out with humanitarian relief.


“Humanitarians cannot be everywhere at the same time and professional UAV pilots cannot be everywhere at the same time,” he says. “But the crowd is increasingly equipped with low-cost personal UAVs and they can be the eyes and ears of disaster response. Just like social media is being used by humanitarian organizations, you can think of imagery captured by the general public as aerial social media.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.