As humanitarian emergencies become increasingly prolonged and complex, the role of technology is ever more crucial in enabling better and faster response when disaster strikes.
Until recently, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — commonly referred to as drones — was limited to aviation experts and a handful of aficionados. With their relatively low costs and unique mobility, however, they are increasingly seen as a valuable tool in providing humanitarian assistance.
The World Food Programme (WFP), a leader in emergency response, is using and exploring the use of drones in its operations. Below are the 5 reasons why.
1. Faster access, greater reach
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, accessing affected areas to assess damage and needs is one of the key challenges the organization faces — and every second counts. Unlike a helicopter or a large team of people, a drone can be deployed within minutes of a disaster for rapid and detailed assessments.
When category-5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean in 2017, WFP’s regional office in Panama deployed a drone to see how many houses had been affected and which roads were blocked or cut off. This provided the emergency response team with vital insights, and they quickly realized the tremendous potential behind drone technology.
2. High-resolution imagery and cost effectiveness
Until recently, WFP relied on satellite images to get a lot of the data needed from the ground. It is costly and because the images depend on the position of the satellite at a given time, data access is sporadic. The quality of the images also depends on how cloudy the skies at the time they were captured. Drones can fly below the clouds, allowing us to get localised data in real-time at a fraction of the cost. They have the potential to improve the reliability, quality and speed of our assessments and contribute to enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response efforts.
3. A valuable asset in emergency preparedness
Drone technology is a valuable tool that helps support efforts to prepare for an emergency before a disaster strikes. For instance, the Government of Mozambique recently started using drones to identify and map areas that are vulnerable to floods by comparing high resolution drone imagery taken during rainy and dry seasons. This will help the government move people living in areas at risk to safer grounds before heavy rains.
4. Monitoring climate change, soil health and much more
The real potential of drones is leveraged when the content is analysed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to obtain data that the naked eye cannot see. Crop and soil health, for example, can be monitored through software that analyses drone images. In Colombia, WFP is already exploring the use of drones to monitor crops.
Drone imagery can provide farmers with immediate feedback on crop health, help detect and diagnose problems, and support actions. Using computer software, the images can be combined to create high resolution maps that can later be analysed to pinpoint important climate change trends and predictions.
When the use of specialized software is combined with drones, the possibilities are endless. WFP is constantly seeking new ways of using this emerging technology to create better solutions and programmes that allow us to leverage the resources currently available.
5. The humanitarian panorama needs innovation
There is a tangible opportunity for the humanitarian world to put emerging and frontier technology at the service of those who need it most, while leveraging and building on each other’s areas of expertise. Since 2014, WFP has been exploring ways to deploy drones in the humanitarian context and defining a drone coordination model.
“Innovation is creating a network between all actors, allowing us to focus on the difference we are making. How effectively are we responding to emergencies? How can we better empower the communities we serve and help those further behind? Technology is key in us being able to do this,” says WFP’s CIO and Director of the Technology Division @EnricaPorcari, stressing that having a strong network of actors allows for real innovation to take off and governments must be the first supporters of these efforts.
The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, of which WFP is the global lead agency, recently endorsed drones to help local coordination during emergencies. WFP has also taken big steps to engage with host governments and local authorities in specific countries. Thanks to the active support of the Government of Belgium, WFP developed and implemented capacity building workshops on drone use and coordination in Myanmar, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Mozambique and Niger.