Using Drones to Help the World

Can drones be useful tools in disaster relief?

It’s just the beginning of the age of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s or drones), particularly when it comes to humanitarian work. Faine Greenwood, who studies humanitarian applications for drones at the New America Foundation sees a bright future. Already, drones have mapped destruction after earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, helping with relief efforts. They’ve gathered photographic evidence of illegal deforestation in Indonesia, and they’re used regularly in the U.S. to track migrating animals.

Using drones for disaster relief really began in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, said Greenwood. “The main application is really not for search and rescue. They’re still pretty limited – they do have their place they can definitely identify people in location that humans can’t get to,” said Greenwood. “But that’s not the big one. I think the big one is really they’re great for making maps.”

After a disaster, the landscape changes. Houses are knocked down, roads don’t exist anymore. So using the drone to map the new environment allows aid workers to understand how to move around and get help where it’s needed. In Nepal, the Humanitarian UAV Network came to the scene and made high resolution maps, which were uploaded to Open Street Map so a team of volunteers around the world could work on them to redo roads and map the destruction. “It’s is a great way to get this imagery up quickly,” said Greenwood.

Greenwood’s work might change the minds of the 41 percent of Americans who aren’t convinced that drones are all that great.  In fact, she’s working with the New America Foundation to create a primer on drone use for non-profit humanitarian organizations. And she helped developed this map and database to look at all the places UAVs are already being used in this sort of non-commercial work. The drones that Greenwood mapped are doing everything from assisting in disaster relief efforts to mapping wildlife migration.

Screen shot of the New America's drone map.
Screen shot of the New America foundation’s drone map.

“When I first got interested in drones, people really had no idea what the heck they were, they associated them with military drones, they thought they were pretty creepy,” said Greenwood. But that changed when Amazon announced its delivery drone. “I think that was kind of the moment where many Americans first started to realize what the civilian drone was and also realize they had other applications beyond military. And ever since then, I think slowly but surely more and more people seem to be kind of relaxing about the concept,” said Greenwood.

“Of course more people are buying them. They were a hit Christmas present this year which indicates people being more comfortable with them.”

However, there’s still a ways to go before everyone is a responsible drone-user. “When they first introduced cars, people did dumb stuff, when they first introduced airplanes, people did dumb stuff like wing walking,” said Greenwood. “There are going to be some dumb people doing stuff, but I  don’t think that’s going to in any way outweigh the positive technology.”

Find more drone coverage at KCRW.com/drones.