Drones: A helpful eye in the sky

By Fanni Barocsi

Lifting off to help in disasters

Imagine a disaster strikes and thousands upon thousands of people might be injured or trapped. How do you begin to assess the damage? Map out the impacted area? Determine where you are most needed? By using new innovations like drones, humanitarian organizations can get where they are needed faster.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are pilotless aircrafts. The main application of drones during disasters is the ability to assess damage using aerial photography. Having an ‘eye in the sky’ is an easy way to map out safe routes, help support search and rescue efforts, as well as determine the communities that are impacted.

Drones around the world

From high up above, drones can provide critical information that can save lives. For example, if there is a flood or a wildfire drones can identify the areas that need immediate assistance faster than other methods. They can also enter more dangerous areas to find people who might be trapped.

In Australia, a drone called the Little Ripper was used by lifeguards to rescue people who were drowning. The drone detected the people struggling and ejected a flotation device that inflated as it hit the water. This line of drones also developed a system that can detect and identify shark threats along the beach.


However, drones have applications beyond assessing situations from the sky. Drones can also deliver necessities like medical supplies and equipment to remote communities. In Rwanda a service called ‘Uber for blood’ is delivering blood to isolated hospitals.

With this service the delivery time for blood was cut down from four hours to an hour and thirty minutes! This innovation is helping significantly reduce maternal deaths in the region. It is also helping decrease the amount of blood spoilage by limiting the amount of blood that needs to be stored directly at hospitals.

How the Red Cross is using drones

The Red Cross is excited about the potential applications of using drones. They could be especially beneficial for producing real-time images and retrieving up-to-date information that will enable better decision making by individuals working in areas impacted by a natural disaster.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross used drones after the 2018 floods to assess the damage and ensure people received aid as fast as possible. By using the drones to map out the impacted areas emergency relief units were able to use the information to identify those areas that were most severely damaged by the floods.

The Canadian Red Cross conducted a pilot project using drones in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and we continue to explore the various applications of this new technology.

For example, drones were used by our Communications Officer, Luc Alary for taking pictures and creating video footage in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, Red Cross partners are working with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society to provide displaced people with medical care, emotional, gender and protection support, shelter, relief items, water, sanitation and hygiene and food security. This compelling footage helps illustrate the full impact of this complex conflict and shows the incredible number of people who are impacted and need support.

Luc says the main challenge with this new technology is finding creative and innovative ways to use it. Drones are evolving rapidly, in the past it was a struggle to get images and footage like this, and he is excited to see what is possible.

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