Flood, fire or earthquake, every disaster has a human cost. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported that the 20 years from 2000 to 2019 saw 7,348 major recorded disaster events that claimed 1.23 million lives. But with the ability to reach affected areas quickly, delivery drones bearing urgent medical supplies are making a difference to disaster relief.
In this blog post, we’ll look at the benefits of fast and efficient drone delivery, as well as exploring some of the key considerations for successful deployment of cargo drones in disaster response operations.
Rapid Delivery of Essential Supplies
When an area is hit by a disaster such as a storm or an earthquake, a medical disaster is never far behind. There will always be immediate injuries to address, treating wounds sustained after being caught in a forest fire, or hit by falling rubble. But then there are the other medical concerns, such as gastro-intestinal issues brought about by contaminated water, or acute respiratory infection caused by dust in the air. Given the risk of disease immediately following a disaster, speedy delivery of medicines, vaccines and emergency kits can often mean the difference between life and death.
The first 72 hours following a disaster are critical, but this crucial time window is precisely when roads and footpaths are likely to be blocked, cutting off routes for traditional delivery vehicles. Railways and airports might also be damaged. Capable of soaring over obstacles such as debris, flash floods and mudslides, and able to work into the night to extend the hours of operation during those crucial first few days, drones are perfectly poised to step into the breach.
Real-Time Monitoring of Disaster Zones
The role of delivery drones in disaster situations goes beyond simply dropping off supplies. As they fly over disaster zones, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) gather a huge amount of data that can help responders put together a complete picture of the scene, and monitor an emergency situation as it unfolds.
Drones can be equipped with cameras and sensors and are able to travel long distances in a short length of time, providing comprehensive real-time aerial images of the affected area. These are invaluable when it comes to assessing the damage, helping aid agencies establish the most urgent issues and target their operations so that they can help the people most in need. Drones can also act as a wi-fi hotspot to further assist with information gathering if extreme weather has impacted traditional communication channels.
Drones also have a role to play in identifying survivors in search and rescue operations, scanning hard-to-reach areas to find missing people. Thermal imagery helps to pinpoint survivors in the disaster zone, while laser technology is used to penetrate rubble to identify people who have been trapped under fallen buildings.
Overcoming Challenges in Medical Drone Delivery
While governments around the world have long recognized the potential for drone delivery in disaster management, it does present a few challenges. Let’s take a look at some of the considerations around deploying drones in disaster relief:
Safety in the sky
Delivery drones might not have the skies to themselves in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; they’ll have to share them with dust, flying debris and any number of small aircraft too. Factor in all the adverse weather conditions that come with a natural disaster, and you have a recipe for mid-air collisions.
While advances in hardware and drone-operating software have a major part to play in mitigating against this, it’s also important to work with local agencies to coordinate safe flight paths in the affected area.
All drone operations must take privacy considerations into account, and this is one of the main concerns affecting public perception of the technology. After all, nobody wants low-flying aircraft potentially taking pictures of them in their back garden. As a result, drone companies know to comply with strict privacy legislation and put robust data protection strategies in place.
This is particularly important when it comes to medical drone delivery, which presents an additional layer of complexity. Drones offer an enormous benefit when it comes to communication since they allow injured people in disaster zones to communicate remotely with the medical experts back at base. However, this solution also entails sending protected health information, and considerations of compliance issues come with it.
Regulatory barriers present a major hurdle to be overcome in the adoption of drone technology in many parts of the world. The drone sector is rapidly evolving, and, as with any new technology, the wheels of government cannot always keep pace. In a bid to mitigate safety and privacy concerns, many countries have tight regulations governing the use of drones over populated areas, and operations that extend beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).
The regulatory landscape is evolving, however. In Canada, the government recently announced new regulations governing BVLOS flights, opening the door to potential new applications for the technology.
Rescue operations don’t just have to contend with the emergency situation itself; drone flights can be hampered by the very conditions that brought about the disaster in the first place.
Heavy winds and sub-zero temperatures both put a strain on battery usage, while heavy rain can damage electronic parts. Dust, too, can affect a drone’s performance. This all impacts a drone’s ability to navigate the air safely, as well as affecting payload capacity and expected flight times. It’s important to factor in these adverse conditions when setting flight paths or calculating battery life.
While delivery drones are undoubtedly a game-changer when it comes to disaster relief management, they don’t work in isolation. In order to actualize their potential, drone technology needs to be seamlessly integrated into wider supply chain operations.
Successful drone delivery requires a certain amount of infrastructure: fulfillment centers, for example, or battery recharging stations with a secure electricity supply. Cold-chain management is a big concern, as vaccines and medicines might need to be kept at a particular temperature in order to be effective. There may also be requirements around reverse logistics, where instead of simply dropping supplies from the sky, the drone has to land in order to pick up medical samples.
Weathering the Storm: Ensuring Resilience of Drone Delivery Operations
As we’ve seen, disaster management brings some unique considerations into play, in addition to the day-to-day challenges of drone delivery. However, drone companies are rising to the challenge, ensuring the resilience of medical drone operations when they are needed most.
Advances in technology mean that drones are getting better all the time. Innovations such as light detection and ranging (LiDar), which uses pulsed laser light to collect measurements, and artificial intelligence tools which train unmanned aircraft to navigate different weather systems, are all helping to improve performance in challenging conditions. And when it comes to selecting a drone for disaster relief operations, a model with a higher ingress protection (IP) rating will be better able to withstand environmental factors such as dust and water.
Successful drone delivery goes beyond the hardware and the software, however. As with any disaster operation, it pays to be prepared. Drone operators should have a robust maintenance plan in place, with trained personnel and a secure supply of spare parts where necessary. Ongoing training and certification is also crucial for adapting to challenging conditions and keeping pace with new technology.
Coordinated Efforts: Government Agencies and the Deployment of Cargo Drones
Drones have been a feature of disaster relief efforts around the world for many years now. They were used in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. In 2019, the World Food Programme deployed drones in Mozambique following Cyclones Idai and Kenneth; more recently, India’s Gurado Aerospace deployed its drones following the earthquake in Turkey.
However, standard protocols are essential to ensure compliance with safety regulations, for example by agreeing drone routes and flight timetables to guard against the risk of mid-air collisions. It’s also important to communicate with affected communities who might be alarmed by drones suddenly appearing in the sky, and to address any privacy concerns.
As a result, there is a growing recognition that drones have to be embedded in disaster preparedness plans from the start. The US Federal Aviation Authority recently awarded research grants to five universities to explore issues such as coordination procedures; the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) has just integrated drones into its disaster relief strategy; and, on a global level, the World Food Program has established working groups to shape drone protocols.
Drones have the potential to revolutionize disaster response by enabling the swift and efficient delivery of critical medical supplies to affected areas. Successful deployment relies on coordination with government agencies, harnessing technology to build up drone resilience to adverse conditions, and smooth integration with existing logistics networks.
At Drone Delivery Canada, we’re leading the way in cargo drone delivery. We partner with companies and government agencies to deliver a comprehensive medical delivery solution including industrial-grade drones and our proprietary FLYTE software system.
Contact us to find out more about our industry-leading technology, our relentless quest for excellence, and our commitment to saving lives through state-of-the-art medical logistics.