This post originally appeared on http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/05/02/how-a-canadian-teams-drones-are-changing-search-and-rescue.html.
[Editor’s Note: Drone data helps GlobalMedic locate and assess damaged buildings, as well as, decide which assets should be deployed.]
After a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through Ecuador’s coastal region last month, Toronto-based GlobalMedic answered the call for aid with a posse of drones, which can survey, map and pinpoint damage as well as the location of survivors. The group’s founder, paramedic Rahul Singh, says they’re the way of the future for humanitarian aid.
GlobalMedic creates pop-up hospitals in war and disaster-struck countries, provides water purification and landmine clearance, and delivers drugs and training to local doctors around the world. Its volunteers are deployed from Eastern Ukraine to Iraq. But, Singh explains, cutting-edge technology is increasingly a vital partner in saving lives, and is expanding its reach.
What made you turn to drones for aid operations?
It started when we worked in Haiti (after the 2010 earthquake) and had a massive 30-car convoy trying to get in and set up a hospital. We couldn’t see the road ahead, roads were blocked, and there was so much time lost because we didn’t have the right information. Afterwards we realized that with a “bird” in the sky we could get it and share it with everyone else who was there to help. We thought UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were the way to go.
But aren’t they also expensive?
We partnered with Aeryon Labs of Waterloo. They gave us super high-end UAVs and trained our people as pilots, and they’re on call 24/7 when we need help. Imagine what that would cost, starting with the ($65,000) aircraft! We got a core group trained, then deployed it to the Philippines and Nepal, now Ecuador. It’s the kind of thing law enforcement and the military uses, and it’s something I think every aid agency will start to use.
What are the advantages of drones for aid workers?
One is during the acute phase of search and rescue. I can put a UAV up, and look into a fifth-storey window when it’s too dangerous to send a person or a dog in. We can put ground-penetrating radar onto a UAV to scan for heartbeats. We can map out roads that are blocked. We can fly over community centres and shelters to see how many people are there so we know where to send aid right away.
Second, it’s useful when we’re in the phase of measuring data to manage our response. We fly mapping missions. Grid searches take tens of thousands of photos and upload them to the Internet. Computers grab the photos and cross-stitch them to make maps in two or 3D images. I can tell you every building that is damaged on any street, assess the damage and decide the assets that are needed to deploy.
What’s the next step for drone aid?
With the Internet all of a sudden you can get help from around the world. There could be some kids uploading our images to the Internet, analyzing the maps from their homes. The next step is harnessing humanity. If the next disaster is bigger than Ecuador, maybe there’ll be some in Beijing, and other places, joining in. That’s the big picture we want to see.
How are you using the drones in Ecuador?
We’re doing city mapping of disaster areas, making 3D images of electrical lines, water and oil tanks, etc. We can see if they’re coming down. It’s a tool we can use to make decisions. This is a program that showcases Canadian innovation. We have three Canadian pilots down there and three more on the way — there’s a firefighter from Mississauga, one from the Toronto Fire Services, a paramedic from the Niagara region and a dentist.
And you’re still doing hands-on aid in the earthquake zone?
We’re never going to stop giving people the basics — clean drinking water and access to medical care. About 1,200 people are seeking shelter on an airport runway, because it’s in the open. The airport is closed and they’re living under tarps and in tents. We’ve provided clean water for everyone every day. We’re also working with the national water board, training them to use the equipment. We don’t just want to go in and hand out bottles of water. We want to empower people.
How dangerous is it in those areas?
Well, you’re at ground zero, walking over rubble. You’re supposed to be aware of danger, but after a while you get desensitized. At one point, we were trying to get some food and the building shook. I knew we should move, but at first we didn’t. Then we heard people out on the street, screaming.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.