Drone Applications in the Aftermath of the Upcoming Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake

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It’s All Up in the Air:

Drone Applications in the Aftermath of the Upcoming Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake

Abstract:

Drones are becoming an increasingly popular resource for emergency management and disaster relief due to their range in capabilities, accessibility, and benefits over piloted aircraft and satellites. They aid in situational awareness, search and rescue, supply transportation, and communication in immediate post-disaster environments as previously demonstrated in the aftermath of landslides, hurricanes, fires and earthquakes. With the upcoming magnitude 9 Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake (CSZ), this technology is expected to assist affected communities up and down the Pacific coast. Federal, state, and local governments as well as humanitarian organizations are currently using and further developing drone technology and policy to utilize in emergencies and disasters. Further work on policy implementation, information, and ethics is required prior to the occurrence of CSZ event. 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

  1. Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………. 2

1.1 Drone Benefits…………………………………………………………………. 2

1.2 Previous Use in Post-disaster Environments……………………………………2

  1. Research Methods ……………………………………………………………………….. 5
  1. Results ……………………………………………………………………………………. 5

3.1 Situational Awareness & Planning ……………………………………………. 5

3.2 Search & Rescue ………………………………………………………………. 6

3.3 Supply Transportation …………………………………………………………. 6

3.4 Communication …………………………………………………………………8

  1. Discussion ……………………………………………………………………………….. 8

4.1 State of Oregon …………………………………………………………………8

4.2 City of Salem……………………………………………………………………9

4.3 Policy & Ethics………………………………………………………………….9

  1. Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………………10

Works Cited ……………………………………………………………………………..11

  1. INTRODUCTION

As drone technology expands and becomes more widely available, so too does the range of disciplines they enhance. Drones are becoming increasingly versatile tools used not only by the military, but by scientists, film makers, surveyors, real estate agents, agriculturalists, and as this paper will explore, emergency managers and humanitarians.

 First, it is important to address terminology. Various agencies and researchers refer to this technology as a drone, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system), and RPA (remotely piloted aircraft). All describe an aircraft that is controlled by a ground operator and does not have an onboard human pilot (FAA, 2018).

1.1 Drone Benefits

 Although manned aircraft and satellites can often perform similar functions, drones provide a number of benefits, especially in post-disaster environments. In the event of a disaster such as a magnitude 9 Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake, runways are likely to be out of commission for a short period due to damage from ground movement and liquefaction. Drones are not dependent on preexisting infrastructure and can take off or land from just about anywhere. They are able to fly precise paths, make tight turns, and hover in one location for an extended period, the latter being important for their use in cellular communication which will be discussed in section 3.4.

Satellite functionality is dependent upon on a number of factors including time of day and cloud cover. Drones operate below could cover, and if equipped with the proper technology, have nighttime visibility. They are able to obtain higher aerial imagery resolution and in addition to nadir imagery, or photos taken straight down, can provide perspectives at oblique angles.

Finally, drones are relatively low-cost in comparison to the price of obtaining, maintaining, and operating airplanes or helicopters. In addition, they are more accessible than government and company owned satellites. Due to their low cost, accessibility, and time efficiency, humanitarian organizations, local governments, and communities are able to own and operate drones (Meier, 2015).

1.2 Drones in Emergency Management

 The integration of drones within emergency management can benefit all stages of a disaster including mitigation, prevention, response, and recovery. For example, pre-disaster early detection of chemical accidents and small-scale forest fires can prevent more dangerous incidents. Post-disaster long-term recovery is supported by drone mapping, modeling, damage and cost assessments (Restas, 2015). However, drone technology is revolutionizing immediate disaster relief efforts by providing situational awareness, search and rescue, supply transportation, and communication. In 2017, drones were deployed for the Southern California wildfires, 7.1 and 8.1 Mexico earthquakes, Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey, and mudslides in Sierra Leone and Colombia (Flash, 2017). Humanitarian organizations including the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and The American Red Cross are using and further developing drone protocol and policy to be used in disaster relief (Gilman, 2014; American Red Cross, 2015).

Table 1. Global drone deployments, types, and uses for disasters and emergencies between 2005 and 2011. Retrieved from American Red Cross, 2015 by Dr. Robin Murphy.

Table 2. Global drone deployments, types, and uses for disasters and emergencies between 2011 and 2015. Retrieved from American Red Cross, 2015 by Dr. Robin Murphy.

 

 

 

 

2. RESEARCH METHODS 

To investigate the potential uses of drone technology in immediate aftermath of the CSZ earthquake, information was researched through scholarly, peer-reviewed articles, primary sources, organization websites, government publications, and communication with city and state emergency managers.

 First, research was conducted to determine where and what drone use has previously been used in emergency management and disaster relief. This addressed a multitude of disaster scenarios including landslides, hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. Second, to understand how these previous uses can be applied to the aftermath of the CSZ earthquake, the present drone policies, uses in small scale emergencies, and plans for the future specific to the Pacific Northwest were examined. Finally, this synthesis of information was analyzed to create theoretical and speculative uses for drones in the CSZ earthquake aftermath.

  1. RESULTS

 The following sections summarize drone capabilities in humanitarian aid, in post-earthquake environments as well as other disasters, all of which can potentially be applied in the aftermath of the CSZ earthquake. The final section, 3.6, Cascadia Region, assesses the present conditions, policies, and progress being made in the Pacific Northwest.

3.1 Situational Awareness and Planning

 Rapid damage assessment is crucial for early response teams in the hours after an earthquake. Locating areas that have endurred the most damage, injured and trapped people, blocked roads, secondary disasters like fires, chemical incidences, and landslides is vital information for rescue personnel. Last year, drone in conjunction with satellite imagery was used to assess the risk of additional mudslides after an initial slide in Sierra Leone killed hundreds (Ratcliffe, 2017).

Evaluating the situation from the ground can be difficult when a better perspective is provided from the air or when roads are damaged or blocked with debris. Deploying drones for this task saves time and provides ground operations with information for planning and relief execution. Efficient use of drones can provide fast and wide-spreading situational awareness.

Researches have investigated various flight paths by using mathematical models to generate the most efficient flight paths to maximize information and coverage while keeping travel time to a minimum (Nedjati et al. 2016; Nam et al., n.d.). From the resulting drone information, decisions can be made for ground operations. Information extracted from imagery can help identify areas with extensive damage and in turn employ relief distribution and search and rescue to those areas. Following Hurricane Irma, the FAA issues 132 airspace authorizations for drones in Florida which determined which areas were in need of the most support (Flash, 2017). On-the-ground routes can be developed prior to dispersing ground crews to ensure they avoid damaged infrastructure.

Drones may also aid in locating population congregations and relocation areas. This may provide strategic planning for emergency managers regarding the locations of ground coordination centers and medical services to establish themselves in safe areas near populations in need, creating an effective post-earthquake response system. (Nedjati et al., 2016; Boccardo et al., 2015).

3.2 Search & Rescue

 One of the most important lifesaving roles drones can play in the post-Cascadia earthquake environment is search and rescue. This past year, drones were used after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to search for missing people and pets (GraVoc, 2018). After a mudslide in Colombia, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras were flown over rubble searching for signs of life (Flash, 2017) (Figure 1). In another case, Molina et al. (2012) organized a project in which a search and rescue simulation was performed. They were successful in locating victims with a few meters accuracy and obtaining coordinates which rescue teams have deemed sufficient as it focuses rescue missions. Expanding upon this, Qi et al. (2015) added statistical imaging processing to help rescue teams detect collapsed buildings. Their approach was used successfully by the Chinese International Search and Rescue Team in the 2013 Lushan earthquake in China. Additionally, the European Union is currently funding a project to develop and implement unmanned technology for search and rescue (OCHA, 2014; ICARUS, 2012).

The success of these technological capabilities in saving lives relies on the ability for rescue teams to deploy them in time. The United Nations states, “to be useful, the UAVs and trained staff must be available within 24-48 hours of a sudden-onset disaster… [and] technical approaches must be integrated into the protocols for rescue teams” (OCHA, 2014).

Figure 1. Drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera detects survivors. Retrieved from Precision Drone Services, Search and Rescue Services, n.d.

 

3.3 Supply Transportation

With some limitations,drones are capable of making contact with hard to reach places whether that be due to infrastructure loss or the nature of remote locations. This makes them an adequate device for delivery of light medical supplies until other means of aid can reach the area. Presently, due to limited payload, a small multi-rotor drone is capable of carrying, about 5lbs which limits its capabilities to light supplies like defibrillators, external fixators, gauze, tourniquets, blood products, and water purifying tablets (Thiels et al., 2015) (Figure 2a).

However, according to the American Red Cross (2015), there are heavy-lift drones that “can transport personnel and rescue survivors from a disaster site. This application is likely to grow exponentially with further technical refinement. Their report, “Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations” outlines a scenario in which a tsunami hits the Pacific coast, knocking out infrastructure—a very real reality in the event of the CSZ earthquake. International aid establishes an offshore base which can transport food, medicine, and materials to repair infrastructure via a “heavy lift” drone—a military scale device adapted from helicopters which can carry 1320lbs (Figure 2).  An operation of this degree would require more time and resources than that of smaller consumer level drones that local governments and organizations may have.

Furthermore, a company called Argodesign has developed a vision for an “ambulance drone” capable of carrying an EMT and medical supplies (Argodesign, 2018). Although this is not yet a reality, this is what the future of drone use in disaster relief could look like.

Figure 2. (a) Multi-rotor quadcopter capable of carrying ~5lbs. (b) A heavy lift drone capable of carrying 1320lbs. Retrieved fromAmerican Red Cross, 2015.

 

3.4 Communication

 A reoccurring problem in natural disasters is the loss of communication infrastructure. A seemingly unlikely, but highly feasible drone use in post-disaster environments is temporary telecommunications infrastructure. Equipping drones with LTE devices or WiFi access points and hovering them over assigned locations would create temporary cell phone or WiFi coverage. However, this requires a significant number of drones (which depends on their fly height and area extent) and allows coverage for 1 hour at a time (Deruyck et al., 2018). Some studies have shown a single drone can provide coverage for up to 3 miles (American Red Cross, 2015). This technology was proven effective after Hurricane Maria wiped out cell towers in Puerto Rico and the FAA and AT&T worked together to establish temporary service (Flash, 2017).

4.  DISCUSSION

 The Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake is going to have extreme and wide-spread affects from British Colombia to Northern California. Preparation for this event must be active and thorough. Considering the presence and potential of drone technology in emergency management and disaster relief, what is already utilized, being considered, or undergoing development in the Pacific Northwest?

 Various organizations in the Pacific Northwest aim to address and expand drone use. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI, 2018) is a nonprofit focusing on the advancement of UAVs. Their Cascade Chapter holds events focusing on policy, innovation, and education in Washington and Oregon. Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR) works on emergency preparedness and disaster resilience in the Pacific Northwest. This organization has received grants for development of critical infrastructure. They have organized two drone related projects (2017 and 2019) to gather information, work through legislation, and provide technical guides for drone aided inspection of infrastructure in post-disaster environments (UAS/UAV Project, n.d.).  One such event was in partnership with the Washington State Department of Transportation and involved local governments, first responders, and the private sector (WSDOT, 2018).

 

4.1 State of Oregon

 According to Oregon’s Director of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps, the state has “begun utilizing drones for a couple of emergency management purposes, mostly in the search and rescue and wildfire environments”. In 2017, UASs called ScanEagles were used in 340 wildfires in Oregon. These drones, which can fly for 20 hours, have a range of over 50 miles, and carry 6 gallons of gas, are capable of operating at night, in smoke, and detect hotspots (Duewel and Stoddard, 2018).

 Drone deployment in the event of any incident is “at the discretion of the incident commander in the field, as opposed to a decision made at the state level”, Phelps explains. There is not yet a formal drone program which incorporates UAV/UAS into Oregon’s emergency management plan, though these plans are currently flexible enough and could encompass this technology if needed. The Oregon Department of Aviation, however, which has an abundance of information regarding drone policy, serves as a support agency for Oregon’s Emergency Support Function #1: Transportation. It would be expected that in the event of a CSZ earthquake they would become highly involved in drone use.

Figure 3. A ScanEagle drone is prepared for deployment to detect hotspots in the Taylor Creek forest fire in Oregon, August 2018. Retrieved from The Statesman Journal, Duewel and Stoddard, 2018.

4.2 City of Salem

 Even at a city level the growing technologies of drones are being addressed. The City of Salem’s Director of Emergency Management, Gregory Walsh, says the city “recently started training and implementation of UAVs for engineering and public works use”. He has been working with the team to understand their capabilities. “I intend to employ them in emergency response and recovery. Most of what I’ll be looking for is to find people and inspect buildings and bridges since that’s part of what they already do”, Walsh explains. Currently, the city owns 3 drones, has one individual drone-pilot certified, and two more in training.

Phelps and Walsh recognize the great potential drones have in disaster relief and mentioned real-time situation assessment, imagery, mapping, damage assessments, search and rescue, supply delivery, communication, hazmat detection, and in the future, survivor evacuation via drone. They acknowledge the need for further development by the state and city regarding this topic and have high hopes and expectations for the future. 

4.3 Policy & Ethics

A major theme of researchers investigating humanitarian drone use is planning. All the potential capabilities stated in the above results section will be most effective if there are pre-existing plans and policies in place. Urban areas in particular are encouraged to have “stand-by UAV teams covering specific geographical areas…regulations should be thoroughly evaluated and addressed well in advance…[and] discussion with relevant aviation authorities…should be encouraged” (Boccardo et al., 2015). In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the FAA effectively restricted drone operations only to certain groups involved in response and recovery in order to ensure the safety of other aircraft (GraVoc, 2018).

However, this is significant risk of interference by inexperienced or unauthorized UAV pilots. This has been an issue encountered by California’s firefighting airplanes and helicopters (GraVoc, 2018). The importance for clear policy and procedure in the Pacific Northwest’s airspace following a CSZ event cannot be understated and is an area requiring further development. Having pre-planned mapping and monitoring systems is preferable (Nedjati et al. 2016). Furthermore, Li et al. (2014) provide a method of UAV tracking, scheduling, and planning in post-disaster surveying which uses real-time GPS locations of drones. Implementation of procedures such as this will solidify operations.

  In Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, a large number of drones were used by government and humanitarian organizations. However, drone regulations in Nepal are lacking which resulted in a number of challenges regarding ethics. Many drone operators flew freely without permission, including “drone journalists” who captured pictures and videos of death and destruction without consent. In addition, because drones can be associated with military violence, it is important to inform and engage communities with their beneficial uses in disaster relief (Meier et al., 2015). Establishing, enforcing, and distributing protocol on clear rules and regulations prior to an event will ensure political and ethical boundaries are followed to create an effective experience.

Conclusion

 Drones are becoming ever more prominent in the emergency management and disaster relief sectors. Their present capabilities include situational assessment, search and rescue, supply transportation, and communication. Such operations have been performed in pervious post-disaster environments and have proven to be revolutionary in relief and response efforts. This technology is expected to greatly assist in the immediate aftermath of the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. The Pacific Northwest region, state and local governments, and humanitarian organizations are actively working to address, implement, and improve UAV applications. Technological advances will continue to improve drone capabilities and will need to address battery time, payload, weather resistance, and image quality. In addition to mechanical improvements, work is to be done on drone policy to ensure safe and effective drone operations prior to a CSZ event.

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