Guest post by Indiana Lee
Drones have become a familiar aspect of our contemporary world. Whether they’re capturing video of sweeping, exotic vistas, or a tool of military campaigns, we largely accept them as a frequent feature of our skies. We’re also becoming more creative about the ways in which this technology can be utilized across various elements of our lives, and the media often posits their potential for future use in different industries.
Part of these speculative drone discussions has surrounded their use in emergency situations. But those vague ideas have begun to transfer to reality; disaster response agencies and the public sector are putting serious investment of time and resources into exploring how this can be applied practically. It’s particularly timely, as much focus and concern as of late are being placed upon the potential for climate change to result in greater severity of natural disasters.
We’re going to take a look at some areas in which drones are currently making a real difference in people’s lives. What applications are they best suited to, and what boundaries are being pushed? We’ll also explore some areas in which, rather than offering solutions, drones themselves are the cause of emergencies.
Our natural world can be volatile at times. Between earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods we are having to find more effective ways to prevent the worst consequences of disasters. Such events can cause damage that prevents emergency personnel from accessing the scene or can affect vulnerable populations in difficult to reach places. As a result, the small size and maneuverability of drone technology have seen them become an increasingly effective and essential tool in emergency response in disaster zones.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are often used in the immediate aftermath of a disaster for assessment and mapping purposes. Equipped with high definition cameras, drones are piloted into the scene and provide emergency services with detailed information on structural damages, road access, and casualty numbers so that personnel can devise safe and agile plans of relief. Following an earthquake in Nepal in 2015, drones were used to fly into areas too damaged, distant, or unsafe for ground crews to reach, providing assessments of the area even in low cloud-cover conditions that would make traditional helicopter surveillance difficult.
Drones are also proving essential in disaster prevention. California and Arizona both have recurring wildfire problems, which often result in widespread destruction. UAVs are now being used to deploy “dragon eggs”; small plastic balls filled with an accelerant, which self ignite in order to create a controlled burn. This method not only trims back the risk of overgrown vegetation exacerbating wildfires but also takes away the necessity for humans to be directly present during the distribution of hazardous materials.
Emergency Services Response
Drones are very much a part of daily recreational life today. However, we’ve yet to see them become a particularly visible component of day-to-day emergency infrastructure. While we’re not yet at the point of seeing drone police officers on the streets, or unmanned ambulances saving lives, that’s not to say that there haven’t been some early efforts in that direction.
The future of law enforcement is expected to be digitally and technologically enhanced. In fact, it’s suggested that 77% of those in law enforcement fields are actively exploring the potential for technology in their professional lives. London’s Metropolitan Police Service has already introduced drone technology into its infrastructure. The UAV has been used to identify those engaging in dangerous driving, and also as a general deterrent against such behavior.
The concept of utilizing drones for emergency medical response is still very much in its infancy; Google obtained a patent for UAVs that deliver life-saving supplies back in 2016, but we have yet to see any real sign of implementation. That said, drones operated by Zipline routinely deliver emergency blood supplies and medical equipment in Rwanda, helping to fulfill the needs of hospitals in difficult-to-reach and rural areas. There has also been encouraging research recently that demonstrated drones could reach accident scenes faster than ambulances in Brooklyn, NY, rush hour traffic, opening up the potential to explore their use further.
Drones Causing Emergencies
While there is some positive work going into using drones to assist in emergency scenarios, we can’t ignore the potential for them to also be problematic. Throughout our technological boom, we’ve seen those with unscrupulous agendas explore ways in which tech can be exploited for personal gain or to harm the innocent. Unfortunately, drones have also played their part in this.
One of the most recent and high profile instances of this was in 2018, at the UK’s Gatwick airport. As a result of 92 sightings of drones being flown around the airport, all flights were grounded, causing disruption to approximately 140,000 passengers. This represents a serious concern for those operating airports, as the presence of drones in controlled airspace has the potential to cause damage to airplanes and put passengers’ lives at risk.
The harm caused by drones is not always on an industrial scale. In 2018, Australia’s ABC News reported that a mother in Sydney was being stalked by her ex-husband using a drone, as part of a sustained campaign of harassment. In 2019, it was reported by Lehigh Valley Live that a man in Philadelphia used an unregistered drone to drop explosives on his ex-girlfriend’s property. This type of harassment falls under various categories of domestic violence, ranging from acts that constitute psychological and emotional abuse, to outright physical violence. Though many of us enjoy the presence and benefits of drone technology, it may be the case that specific legislation must be introduced in order to tackle the growing problems associated with their use.
We live at an exciting time, technology is enhancing multiple aspects of our lives. The prevalence and affordability of drone technology mean that emergency responders have been able to explore the many ways in which this maneuverable technology can assist in risk assessment and assistance delivery. However, we must also be conscious of how this technology could be abused, and consider steps to restrict the worst effects of their use.