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.”
Since 2012, UAS have been used to locate missing people, combat forest fires and monitor threats like Ebola through heat sensors. They can be sent out multiple times a day to gather information and fly close to the ground for a fraction of the cost of helicopters or satellites.
“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.”
As of January 2019, WFP has conducted UAS capacity building in the Dominican Republic, Mozambique, Madagascar, Myanmar, Peru, Colombia, Niger and Bolivia. In these workshops, South-South collaboration is prioritized. In the November 2018 workshop in Mozambique, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Madagascar joined the host country to share strategies that have worked and brainstorm new ideas on how to prepare for the cyclones, floods, and earthquakes in the region.
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.
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.”
As UAS technology is implemented, humanitarian organizations have to be clear about what kind of data they are allowed to collect and who has access to it. In some instances, photos of groups or individuals could put their lives at risk. In this scenario, UAS can be programmed to fly at a certain height or use automated processes to blur out sensitive information including people, places and things to protect anonymity. Before a mission begins, staff need to communicate to all involved parties — including the affected population whenever possible — the “what” and the “why” of the data they are collecting.
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