How Drones Helped with Early Recovery in the Philippines

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A Medair team member launches an eBee UAV. Photo: Drone Adventures

In November 2013, the Philippines experienced one of the strongest and deadliest tropical cyclones ever recorded. Typhoon Haiyan resulted in well over 6,000 deaths and devastated the city of Tacloban along with the islands of Leyte and Panaon, among other regions. The Category 5 super typhoon also displaced more than 6 million people and left almost 2 million more homeless. One of the first international humanitarian organizations to respond was Medair. They arrived in country just 48 hours after the typhoon to conduct their initial disaster damage and needs assessments, but their efforts were hampered by the lack of accurate and up-to-date maps of the region.

Example of an existing map of an affected area. Photo: Drone Adventures
Example of an existing map of an affected area. Photo: Drone Adventures

To address this lack of accurate geographic data, Medair teamed up with the Swiss-based non-profit Drone Adventures in March 2014. Medair was keen to explore what role aerial imagery could play in providing better maps and believed that this imagery could also potentially support shelter construction. To this end, over the course of six days, Drone Adventures used Sensefly eBee drones to carry out aerial surveys of Tacloban, Dulag and Julita municipalities and of the east coast of Leyte to assess the disaster damage and to support shelter reconstruction activities. The use of drones did not take place within the emergency phase but was rather carried out to explore how aerial imagery might support the recovery and reconstruction activities.

In addition to the normal housing, land and property issues related to shelter construction, Medair was concerned about no-build zones and local hazards such as flooding.

 

Permissions

Obtaining approval for the drone flights from the authorities took about three weeks. Local authorities also played a key role by escorting the UAV team to safe areas to operate and/or by meeting with the UAV team after the flights to discuss the use of the maps. They were also instrumental in communicating with local populations regarding the purpose of UAV flights.

Flights

A two-person team from Drone Adventures carried out a total of 29 UAV flights with a combined flight time of 11.6 hours. The total surface area surveyed was 48.6 km², generating 5,139 very high-resolution aerial images. Imagery for larger areas (such as fields) was captured at 8 cm resolution to reduce processing time, while imagery for smaller areas such as villages was captured at 5 cm resolution to increase the quality and detail in more urban areas. Before surveying any new area, the team first contacted the local barangay captain – effectively the village mayor – to explain the purpose of the UAV flights and to ask what data they could offer to the village leaders. These local mayors were reportedly always excited by the opportunity to gain access to more accurate maps, and according to the Drone Adventures staff, they all understood “how much value up-to-date, highly accurate geographic information can bring and the transformative effect proper maps could have on their work.” As one barangay captain noted, “Before, we had an overview of our barangay with a large data sheet from 1999 but it was destroyed by the typhoon. Now we can better plan and show which households need help.”

The digital imagery was processed using Pix4D and hosted on MapBox. The data was shared with the mayor’s office in Tacloban and the individual barangay offices. In addition, Medair and Drone Adventures printed out the maps on small banners in order to share hard copies of the resulting data.

 

Half of communities actively used maps

Medair and Drone Adventures staff made follow-up visits to the mayor’s office and to each local barangay. The first visit was to ascertain how the information products were being used, and showed a nearly even split in “actively being used” and “available but not actively used”.

 

Disaster risk reduction

The second visit was from a disaster risk reduction expert who was working on a specific project with a local partner in those barangays. This project utilized the printed maps to demonstrate to community members how they can assess the risk of hazards in their communities. More specifically, the barangay council used the printed maps and markers to indicate areas where local hazards, such as flooding, were an issue, and where new shelters were to be constructed in relation to these local hazards. In one case the barangay council used the maps to advocate to municipal authorities regarding needed infrastructure in their community. In these instances the maps provided the council with an improved spatial understanding of their community, and a hands-on, low-tech means to analyze it.

Regarding Medair’s own shelter project, an evaluation showed that the drone imagery did not inform any decisions at the tactical level. At the strategic level, the aerial imagery did attract positive media attention and instill donor confidence. Donors were able to view digital imagery of the newly constructed shelters at each site, overlaid with the beneficiary data, providing a new level of project coordination and accountability. Finally, when Medair made a decision at a later date to retrofit all shelters with latrines, the imagery became useful in both a tactical and strategic sense during that project – not only to identify and verify the shelter sites, but also to help determine placement of latrines.

Download the full version of this case study as PDF here.

 

Over the next months, Droneblog will feature summaries of case studies that show how drones are already being used in disaster response operations worldwide. The case studies were produced under the leadership of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) and with funding from EU Humanitarian Aid. The goal of this research initiative is to identify use cases in which cases drones can improve the quality or increase the efficiency of humanitarian aid.

 

You can find more information about this and other case studies on http://drones.fsd.ch/

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