Drone Images Aid Rescue Workers in Nepal

Relief workers in quake-stricken Nepal say they are using drones and crowdsourced maps offered by volunteer groups as they seek to get emergency supplies to stranded survivors.

Indian and Nepalese authorities are using drones to search areas inaccessible by land, while the American Red Cross is among the agencies providing aid workers with maps that have been updated by thousands of Internet users who examine online satellite imagery and other sources.

S.S. Guleria, deputy inspector general of India’s National Disaster Response Force, which has deployed hundreds of search-and-rescue personnel to Nepal, said two unmanned aerial vehicles are being used in operations in Katmandu and its outskirts. Purchased from Mumbai-based drone company ideaForge, they are operated by pilots in a Katmandu control room.

It is too early to gauge the exact impact of the technology in Nepal relief efforts, which have just begun amid chaos on the ground. Aid organizations have reported hospitals are overstretched, a shortage of capacity at Katmandu’s airport is crippling aid distribution and damaged roads and the mountainous country’s difficult terrain make reaching villages difficult.

Still, technology is playing an increasing role in the global response to humanitarian crises. Within hours of Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude temblor, U.S. giants such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. were offering their networks for use in verifying survivors and helping worried friends and relatives locate their loved ones.

Advances in online mapping—long used to calculate distances and plot driving routes—and the ability of camera-equipped drones are playing an increasingly important role in coordinating emergency responses at ground zero of any disaster.

A community of nonprofit groups uses satellite images, private images and open-source mapping technology to remap areas affected by the earthquake. They mark damaged buildings and roads so rescuers can identify the worst-hit areas and assess how accessible different areas are. The technology complements more traditional intelligence from aircraft.

Such crowdsourced real-time mapping technologies were first used in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, according to Chris Grundy, a professor in Geographical Information Systems at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The technology “has been advancing a little bit every time [every situation where it is used] as we start to see what works,” said Prof. Grundy.

The American Red Cross supplied its relief team on the Wednesday night flight to Nepal from Washington, D.C. with 50 digital maps and an inch-thick pile of paper maps that help identify where the needs are. The charity has a mapping project with the British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a crowdsourced data-sharing group.

Mapping efforts have grown substantially since Haiti, according to Dale Kunce, head of the geographic information systems team at the American Red Cross. In the two months after the Haiti temblor, 600 mapping contributors made 1.5 million edits, while in the first 48 hours after the Nepal earthquake, 2,000 mappers had already made three million edits, Mr. Kunce said.

Some 3,400 volunteers from around the world are now inspecting images of Nepal online to identify road networks and conditions, to assess the extent of damage and pinpoint open spaces where displaced persons tend to congregate, according to Nama Budhathoki, executive director of a nonprofit technology company called Katmandu Living Labs.

His group is operating from a cramped but largely undamaged meeting room in a central-Katmandu office building to help coordinate the global effort of various mapping organizations with the needs of agencies like Doctors Without Borders and the international Red Cross community.

In recent days the Nepal Red Cross and Nepalese army have requested and been supplied with updated maps of severely damaged districts, said Dr. Budhathoki.

Around 40 helicopters from Nepal’s army, other countries and private firms have been pressed into service for rescue missions, according to Kamal Singh Bam, a spokesman for Nepal’s national police. The army and police were using drones for reconnaissance work, he added.

“We are taking help from agencies to map out all affected structures and collapsed buildings,” Mr. Bam said, and the government “planned to use digital maps.”

Ankit Mehta, co-founder and chief executive of ideaForge which is working with India’s NDRC, said one of the company’s drones had been used to look for survivors inside a partly collapsed building.

“There are lots of things you can do by first doing a full survey of a disaster site” with a drone, he said via phone from Mumbai Wednesday. For instance, if landslides make a road impassable, drones can help plan how best to clear it.

Currently most of the images used in mapping come from satellites but information from drones may become increasingly useful. Patrick Meier,founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, an organization that promotes the use of drones in international relief efforts, said Friday that his group is coordinating with some seven drone teams and several more individuals—a total of nearly 20 people—already operating drones or preparing to fly them in Nepal.

One way the crafts can be used is to assess damage, with aerial surveys cross-referenced with those done on the ground, he said. Drones can also be used to inspect damage to bridges and roads, and to help find communities isolated after the quake, Mr. Meier said.

Once the drones capture images, their analysis can be crowdsourced on an affiliated site called MicroMappers, which allows volunteers—“digital Jedis,” the site calls them—to sift through the photos for information that may be of use in rescue operations. One significant challenge, however, is spotty Internet access, which makes it difficult for some UAV teams to upload images, Mr. Meier said.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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