Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed – Sir Francis Bacon If there is a force out there that mankind cannot comprehend sufficiently to control yet, it is nature itself. Nature still continues to surprise mankind by unleashing its power in the form of natural disasters. The furthest that mankind could potentially go in dealing with natural disasters is by making them less of a surprise, more predictable and being better prepared to deal with them.
Natural disasters affect large spectrums of social and natural ecosystems, including housing, transportation, food supplies, power, communication networks and sanitation. Several studies have indicated that the root cause of the extent of damage inflicted by several natural disasters has been primarily due to the lack of early warning to prepare and respond to such events, leading to loss of life and property.
Deployment of technology to tackle such disasters can help to reduce the impact of such disasters and save lives.
Space technology, modern information and communication systems and remotely operated robotic systems for rescue and relief operations are some of the technologies that find useful applications in disaster management efforts, for example, early warning and disaster preparedness and the search and rescue of survivors.
Early warning and preparedness In recent years, efforts in disaster management have gained impetus from the unprecedented development in information, communication and space technologies, which have wide-ranging applications in disaster preparedness, mitigation and management.
These technologies provide vital support for disaster management in many ways: observation, monitoring, data collection, networking, communication, warning dissemination, service delivery mechanisms, GIS databases, expert analysis systems, information resources, and so on. In particular, technologies such as remote sensing have successfully been used to minimise the calamitous effects of disasters in all phases of disaster management.
Several sensors deployed in frequently affected areas substantiated by advanced analytical tools and solutions are also gaining prevalence and increasingly being used to predict natural disasters, such as floods.
Perhaps the most important technology component in disaster management is communications technology, which helps to maintain the flow of real-time data and information between authorities and to relay that information to affected populations.
Role of space technology Space technology is a crucial component of disaster management systems because it remains largely unaffected during disasters, whereas information and communication technologies – which are based on ground infrastructure – are vulnerable to natural disasters.
Space technologies enable uninterrupted surveillance, monitoring and communication over wide and remote terrains during disasters.
Space-based technologies widely used in disaster management include: remote sensing; geographical information system (GIS); global positioning system (GPS); satellite navigation system; satellite communication; and other special software packages, online management databases, and disaster information networks.
Applications for such technologies include: disaster early warning, dissemination and evacuation; disaster information, quick processing and analysis; database construction; information integration and analysis; disaster mapping and scenario simulation; hazard assessment and monitoring; disaster trend forecasting; disaster characteristic factor monitoring; vulnerability assessment; emergency response decision support; planning of disaster response, reduction and relief; logistics preparation for disaster relief; needs assessment for disaster recovery and reconstruction; risk investigation and assessment and monitoring of recovery and reconstruction.
Unmanned systems applications
Quick response and recovery are vital to reducing causalities in disaster situations. Often, first responders are faced with widespread destruction and inaccessible areas, leading to lengthy and challenging rescue and recovery efforts and resulting in loss of life. Advances in unmanned systems have found them widespread applications in such civilian missions.
Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a Global Hawk (pictured, below) was assigned its first disaster relief missions in the Caribbean. The unmanned aircraft overflew the damaged areas for 14 hours to monitor the situation. Highresolution images transmitted by the Global Hawk made it possible to locate usable take-off and landing areas for helicopters and relief aircraft.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered substantial damage following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. A high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV glided over the power plant to take pictures of the building using high-resolution infrared sensors. The HALE vehicle showed disaster response teams that overheating was occurring inside the nuclear station. Later the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAV RQ-16 T-Hawk was deployed at the reactor site to relay realtime images of the damaged facility.
During search and rescue missions in maritime accidents on the open ocean, medium- and high-altitude UAVs with high endurance and the capability to monitor large areas are decisive. Therefore, UAS represent an important support tool for natural disaster management because of their instant availability, autonomy and endurance.
Unmanned systems also provide support in a large variety of government and civilian missions, such as border surveillance and security, weather monitoring, communications relay, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, aerial mapping, firefighting, and others. UAVs have typically been assigned the ‘dull, dirty, dangerous’ missions to minimise human exposure to hazards.
Dealing with the calamities of the future
Advances in technologies can make us safer as we develop new methods of prediction and better defences. In the decades to come, technology will play a crucial role in saving lives and reducing the impact of natural disasters, making mankind more resilient to nature’s forces.