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Nepal Earthquake: Drones Used By Canadian Relief Team

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From the ground in Nepal, the chaos would have been immediate and terrifying.

From the skies above, the scope of the tragedy came into sharper focus after Saturday's 7.8-magnitude quake — a vast disaster zone with a death toll that has since climbed past 4,000 and turned UNESCO heritage sites such as the Dharahara Tower Hindu shrine into rubble.

Many of those striking aerial images were shot by drones gliding above, the kind of eye-in-the-sky technology that Canadian relief teams will begin deploying as soon as today over the stricken mountainous areas between India and Tibet.​

As these robotic flyers do their work, the American Red Cross is among the agencies that will be watching. Camera-carrying drones have become the latest tool for emergency responders to pin-point where aid is needed.

Earlier this month, the organization's vice-president of disaster cycle services, Richard Reed, met with the Washington-based drone services company Measure to discuss the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for disaster response within the U.S.

Made-in-Canada drone scouts

In November, the medical group Doctors without Borders used drones to transport tuberculosis sputum samples in Papua New Guinea.

And this week, Nepal is ground zero for made-in-Canada drone scouts.

Workers with the Toronto-based humanitarian organization GlobalMedic are flying a fleet of three UAVs to survey the region and collect thousands of high-resolution snapshots to help streamline aid delivery.

"We're cross-stitching thousands upon thousands of images onto maps. And they show us everything," said GlobalMedic founder and executive director Rahul Singh.

He says the videos and photos captured by the UAVs reveal more detail than a satellite image.

"We'll be able to know what street is out, what building was destroyed, where the landslide has taken out a road, how many homes in a neighbourhood have collapsed," he said.

Haiti's lesson

GlobalMedic's UAV program was developed as a result of logistical challenges it faced in Haiti five years, where the slow pace of aid delivery by international agencies caused a huge outcry.

At the time, violent protests and mobs in the capital Port-au-Prince hampered efforts.

"Can you imagine going down a road and having to turn around a convoy?" Singh asks rhetorically. "But a UAV can fly up and down a street in front of my convoy to tell me what roads are clear, where to navigate and where I can assign assets to."

Being able to prioritize services more simply, and without having to hire a helicopter for thousands of dollars an hour, could potentially save lives, drone advocates say.

In this instance, drone-maker Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ont., has loaned three UAVs — two Scout models and one SkyRanger, valued between $60,000-200,000 depending on how they're kitted out — to GlobalMedic.

"The thermal camera system should allow aid crews to see the body heat of survivors more easily than using visible light alone," said Aeryon CEO Dave Kroetsch.

A fourth drone, another SkyRanger, may also be sent to Nepal.

Part of the UAV mission there is to churn out detailed relief maps and share the data among aid groups.

'Hover and stare'

Robotics expert Robin Murphy, whose research was cited for the Red Cross-supported study of relief drones, is excited about using UAVs to able to seek out real-time data such as topography and digital elevation maps "on demand."

She can also imagine sending out UAVs to scout the best spot to set up a refugee camp with good central drainage.

"This technology should be dispatched immediately," she says. "We really need to get them as part of the routine, where there's a disaster and you expect to see people in hard hats, and to have [rescue] dogs, but you also expect to see robots there."

Murphy, the director of the Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, noted that drones can also zip into narrow canyons and "hover or stare" where helicopters can't.

"For certain types of damage assessments, manned helicopters just can't safely approach buildings," she said.

Murphy's group was close to sending in UAVs to help monitor the flow rates during the mudslides in Washington State last year, a task they were well suited for. But the mission was cancelled due to community privacy concerns.

The American Red Cross also says there are many factors, aside from privacy, that still need to be ironed out before drones become part of the regular disaster-response toolkit, even as the technology becomes cheaper and more commonplace.

For example, University of Calgary engineering professor Alex Ramirez-Serrano points out that some UAV companies are struggling with how to employ "sense and avoid" radar to prevent mid-air collisions with power lines and flying objects.

His unmanned vehicles firm, 4Front Robotics, has been working on this and is in talks with search and rescue associations in Canada for a potential partnership.

"The technology is getting there, but it will take a bit of time for society to start adopting it and embracing it," he said.

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