How Drones Are Revolutionizing Disaster Relief

NASA’s Ikhana drone heads out on a wildfire imaging mission above Lake Arrowhead, Calif. CREDIT: AP
NASA’s Ikhana drone heads out on a wildfire imaging mission above Lake Arrowhead, Calif. CREDIT: AP

Above the skyline of El Alto, Bolivia, a drone built using recycled materials is capturing aerial video and international attention.

“Drones can engage in natural disaster relief without endangering the lives of journalists or rescue workers,” according to inventor Alex Chipana, who recently used his homemade UAV, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, to record footage of El Alto’s May Day Celebrations.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Chipana described how he built the drone using spare parts from “printers, photocopiers, and washing machines,” as well as some imported components, and assembled it according to online instructions. “Now, with parts that are available to any user at relatively low costs,” Chipana explained, “it is easy to build a small drone like mine, using recycled parts.” The DIY drone, which has its own twitter account, represents just one of the many ways UAVs can be used for non-military purposes.

While drones have received negative media attention in connection with their use in spying and extrajudicial killings, the function of UAVs doesn’t end with the military. “Drones don’t just end human life, they also save it,” tech journalist Matthew Harwood told Security Management magazine.


As extreme weather becomes increasingly severe, technology will play a critical role in monitoring and response and the Air Force, NASA, and several NGOs all agree that drones are becoming indispensable in disaster relief operations.

During 2007’s deadly southern California wildfires, drones equipped with infrared sensors penetrated walls of smoke to relay information about the size of the blaze. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, the Air Force dispatched its “Global Hawk” drone to map the damage in Port-Au-Prince so NGOs could establish target areas for their relief work. And more recently, drones were deployed after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last December. Unlike helicopters, which can take up to an hour to arrive on the scene and gather information, drones are operational within three minutes.

Inspired by the versatility of UAVs, groups such as OpenRelief and Matternet are leading the way in developing drones’ disaster relief capabilities. Matternet, which is developing technology that enables UAVs to transport food and goods to disaster zones, also helped with the Haiti relief effort by using drones to deliver medicine.

In a 2013 TED talk, Matternet founder Andreas Raptopoulos said drones can also serve to limit the expansion of paved roads, which often come with heavy ecological costs. “One billion people in the world today do not have access to all season roads,” Raptopoulos states, elaborating that road systems are “very expensive to build, very expensive to maintain infrastructure, with a huge ecological footprint, and yet, very often congested.” He suggests drones could eventually function as a widespread alternative to vehicles that require roads in order to transport goods to remote areas.

Last Wednesday, Congress passed a new Appropriations Committee budget that will give over $10 million to the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial drone research. The bill states that the “FAA will need to develop a comprehensive plan to identify research priorities.” Given UAVs prominent role in natural disaster relief, this could rank among the top priorities.