Drones to the rescue as Cyclone Desmond storms Mozambique

Training led by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the Southern Africa region expand the options for emergency response

Tej Rae
Tej Rae
Jan 24, 2019 · 5 min read
Aerial assessment of Mozambique floods using drones, January 2019. Photo: INGC / António José Beleza

When tropical cyclone Desmond hit the north coast of Mozambique on 22 January, 2019, roads in the fourth largest city Beira became rivers, the ground floors of homes and stores were submerged, and cars floated away.

This time, emergency crews had cutting-edge technology on their side. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, were deployed to track rising flood waters and chart better evacuation plans for the people trying to escape them. Using live images taken at close range, rescuers were able to respond much faster than in previous years. The imagery collected by UAS teams on the ground is now being integrated in real-time and for the first time into the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Mapping Service, which was activated at the request of the United Nations on 22 January to conduct rapid assessments of flooded areas.

These new skills are the result of multiple training opportunities led by WFP on how to fly, map, and coordinate with UAS. A few months earlier, in September 2018, the same government staff who directed drones over Beira this week stood in a field in Madagascar with a remote control in their hands, practising their piloting skills.

The benefits are evident.

“Over the past two years WFP has laid the framework for the integration of frontier technologies including drones into emergency preparedness and response. WFP’s capacity building is now being put into action where drones can be deployed when every moment counts. Our government counterpart in Mozambique, the National Disaster Management Agency (INGC) is flying drones as we speak to get a common operating picture of the situation on the ground via live video to search and rescue teams as well as high resolution flood mapping to begin rehabilitation planning once flood waters recede,” said WFP Chief of Staff Rehan Asad, at the panel, “Drones: Localized Strategies for Global Technologies” on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“WFP’s capacity building is now being put into action where drones can be deployed when every moment counts.”

UAS Coordination Training Madagascar, August 2018. Photo: WFP / Katarzyna Chojnacka

“The EU is firmly convinced that technology can be harnessed to enhance national disaster management systems at minimal cost. Mozambique is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. With our support, WFP provided professional training to national disaster management authorities in Mozambique on the use of drones. The country is now reaping the benefit of this training as the drone team is in action in the emergency flood response. It is an example of how new technology can save lives and help communities hit by disasters within shorter time spans,” says Androulla Kaminara, Director at the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).

“In addition, following the WFP’s request for emergency satellite mapping for the floods affecting Mozambique, the European Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) activated the Copernicus Emergency Mapping Service to provide satellite maps to support humanitarian operations in the area,” adds Kaminara.

To monitor water levels in Mozambique, WFP and ECHO are conducting an ambitious mapping operation — the largest so far — of the Licungo river floodplain covering 14,000 square kilometres. The gathered data charts informal settlements and elevation levels to recommend the safest, quickest relocation options in the event of an emergency. The data gathered charts informal settlements and elevation levels to recommend the safest, quickest relocation options in the event of an emergency.

“It is an example of how new technology can save lives and help communities hit by disasters within shorter time spans.”

UAS Coordination Training Madagascar, August 2018. Photo: WFP / Adam Marlatt

WFP’s experience with aviation and long-standing partnerships are among the reasons why the organization is in a unique position to push forward with UAS technology. Since 2003, the WFP-managed United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has provided air transport to humanitarian organizations, and developed the safety protocols and long-standing agreements with local aviation authorities that are an essential part of the process.

UAS Coordination Mozambique, November 2018. Photo: WFP / Katarzyna Chojnacka

Like most endeavors with many players, the greatest challenge to safely deploying UAS in emergencies has less to do with technology and more to do with partnerships and coordination. As the lead agency of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, a global network of organizations that work together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies, WFP understands how much strategic partnering impacts the success of a mission.

“Like most endeavors with many players, the greatest challenge to safely deploying UAS in emergencies has less to do with technology and more to do with partnerships and coordination.”

The expansion of this technology is an integral part of WFP’s plan to end hunger by 2030, as well as a focus for the forthcoming World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At the annual conference in Davos, WFP Technology Director and CIO Enrica Porcari became a member of WEF’s Council of Drones and Aerial Mobility, drafting policy for global UAS coordination and regulations.

In a Q&A with DEVEX in 2018, Ms Porcari highlighted the critical importance of leveraging UAS technology, including in disaster response assessments where saving time is particularly crucial: “Imagine in the case of flooding or an earthquake — drones enable you to do the vulnerability assessment in the most effective and efficient way (…) from weeks and days to hours.”

Watch this space as our programmes expand in 2019.

Read more about WFP’s use of drones

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store