Responding to a governor-to-governor call, New York's Governor Cuomo traveled to Puerto Rico last week to offer assistance to Puerto Rico's Governor Rossello. Cuomo brought with him ten engineers, planners, technical supervisors and translators from the New York Power Authority. He also brought, from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, three drones and two drone pilots.
The drones were intended to help the New York delegation execute their mission, which is to figure out how to restore power to the island. But they could also be used, and presumably will be in future, to assist with crucial search-and-rescue tasks.
Rescue workers in Puerto Rico have a daunting task ahead of them. While the island is shaped like a remarkably orderly rectangle, the topography is a tangle of mountainous rainforest.
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With both electricity and communications grids down, and highways strewn with collapsed electricity poles and streetlights, folks stuck in the interior of the territory have no way to reach out for help and no easy means of transportation.
The first problem is conducting triage. A good solution would be to use drones, sending them over impassable terrain to scan for survivors. Drones outfitted with video and thermal cameras—as the DEC drones are—could locate pockets of people trapped in mountain villages, alerting authorities to their presence. Here's an example of how DEC's drones use thermal imaging to locate bat hibernation locations:
As Forbes reports, other drone experiments undertaken by environmental bodies show great promise by turning drone footage into useful data:
Early applications using large volunteer teams to identify wildlife in satellite imagery and train computer algorithms to conduct basic wildlife censuses have evolved into large-scale disaster triage efforts using drone imagery. Under one pilot application, live drone imagery would be streamed to a remote team of volunteers who would click on the video feed to identify damaged locations. Areas receiving large numbers of clicks would be highlighted on the screen for drone operators to investigate further, offering realtime feedback. During one test over 100 volunteers collectively provided 49,706 identifications that were 87% accurate.
Drones could also serve as force multipliers, if fixed-wing UAVs like the one being developed at MIT's CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab) were used. Their slingshot-launched drone can fly autonomously, using stereo-vision, on-board CPUs and custom algorithms that can detect and avoid obstacles.
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Another type of drone that could prove useful in disaster areas is the PARC, or Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications system designed by CyPhy Works for the U.S. Army.
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The PARC is essentially stationary, and using one is like having sensors on top of a 400-foot tower—without needing to build the tower. Tethered to a fixed location, the PARC can fly for over 200 hours at a stretch, as power is fed to it through the tether. Communications data, meanwhile, is fed from the drone back down to the operator via the same tether. While the PARC's lack of mobility doesn't suit search-and-rescue operations, it would be useful in situations where sites need to be monitored for signs of imminent disaster, like a dam on the verge of collapsing or a facility at risk of explosion.
Here's how the PARC operates:
Monitoring locations and searching for survivors is one way drones can help. But how can they be used to actually get supplies to those who need it? We'll look at that next.