GlobalMedic goes airborne: UAVs in disaster relief

On 16 April 2016, earthquakes struck on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, creating large shocks in both Japan and Ecuador and prompting international rescue efforts in both countries. In Ecuador, where reportedly more than 650 people were killed, a key rescue role was provided by GlobalMedic, whose use of unmanned aerial vehicles in partnership with the government provided essential support as part of the overall rescue efforts. Femke van Iperen reports
When the magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit near the coast in Ecuador, initial reports showed that at least 28 people had died. But on 24 April, the media reported that according to the Ecuador’s Risk Management Office, the death toll had climbed to 654 by the time it was measured the day before. It was also reported that 58 people remained missing since the quake took place, 12,492 people were injured, and almost 26,091 people were living in shelters.
In response, Ecuador deployed some 10,000 soldiers and 4,600 police officers to the affected areas. Further help came from countries including Mexico, Spain, Chile, Peru, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Switzerland and China; in addition, UNICEF, the European Union and the World Bank were involved.
Key roles
“The lack of water and communication remains a big problem,” one of the survivors was reported to have said in the aftermath, and one of the key roles of GlobalMedic was ensuring survivors had, and would continue to have, clean water. Through the distribution of water purification tablets, the setting up of point of source water purification units and point of use water purification units, working with a number of partners GlobalMedic managed to ensure clean water for a year for more than 30,000 people a day, Rahul Singh, a Toronto paramedic and the founder and executive director of GlobalMedic, told AMR.
To further help with the relief work, a number of SAR teams provided essential work by scanning buildings for proof of life. Teams were equipped with R4 Inc. FINDER HX ground penetrating radar systems, which helped allocate the organisation’s assets into priority areas.
In addition, the GlobalMedic deployed several UAV teams. Using drones made the overall rescue efforts even more efficient said Singh, who himself has led over 30 international missions for GlobalMedic.
Sustainable solutions
As a humanitarian aid organisation, emergency response agency and NGO, GlobalMedic (which together with GlobalFire and GlobalWater makes up the Canadian charity David McAntony Gibson Foundation (DMGF), which was founded in 1998), does not only respond to large-scale, often complex catastrophes around the world, it also provides sustainable solutions for the hospitals of the developing countries it is operating in.
Uniquely, the organisation makes use of thousands of professional rescuers, paramedics, and firefighters who volunteer their time and skillset to be deployed on the organisation’s crisis response teams on missions all over the world. 

There may be a building that is teetering; we can put a UAV in to better understand what’s going on

Singh, whose own work around the world has been recognised and awarded (for example for his work with GlobalMedic when he was named in the 2010 Time 100 list of ‘The World’s Most Influential People’, and earlier in 2006, when he was honoured with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC) ‘Humanitarian of the Year Award’ by the then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper), explains how other teams and countries will often also donate their doctors and skillset to the organisation’s operations.
All in all, by providing both technological equipment and training such as pre-hospital emergency medical-care training packages, the organisation aims to empower the emergency response capacity of organisations and communities, and it wasn’t soon after the organisation showed its UAV concept to the Ecuadorian government that it realised GlobalMedic would offer a valuable service to the overall rescue efforts, Singh explained.
Particularly useful
During its work in Ecuador, GlobalMedic used UAVs in two different ways. First, they helped create a situational awareness in SAR missions. “There may be a building that is teetering; we can put a UAV in to better understand what’s going on,” Singh says, adding that in future the teams are hoping to be able to attach the radar to the drone as well. In addition, UAVs were also used to help compile emergency maps from ‘thousands of photos’, to, for example, ‘save convoy time by finding out where the roads are blocked’. This, says Singh, proved particularly useful, because ‘you cannot manage a crisis unless you can measure it’. He added: “[They helped] get a better idea of the extent of the damage you are dealing with.”
A number of GlobalMedic’s own volunteer professionals, some of whom have been trained to be UAV pilots by Aeryon Labs, were operating the quadcopters. In addition, external professional companies, such as UAV operator AeroVison Canada from Nova Scotia, also volunteered their pilots, time and equipment. During Ecuador’s initial recovery, together the teams used two types of the Canadian Aeryon small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS): the Labs Scout and Skyranger from Aeryon Labs Inc.
Aeryon’s vertical take-off and landing machines are marketed for being able to ‘provide reliable performance in harsh environments, extreme weather and high winds’, and ‘be deployed within minutes’, and they are reported to be in use with military, public safety and commercial operators around the world.
Singh notes: “[The] UAV is a new tool that we are using to improve our delivery methodology; it’s a good use of innovation.” To which he added: “We had many different assignments with the UAV teams. Some were mapping damaged urban areas or the ports; others were creating 2D and 3D models; or they were mapping the fault line areas to locate the bigger risks and threats.”
Thanks to the emergency maps and damage assessments of the GlobalMedic and partner UAV teams, responders could be informed of the most critical interventions required on the ground. Furthermore, the Government of Ecuador and the National Secretariat for Risk Management gained a more comprehensive understanding about the effects of the earthquake, so that they could better manage their response.
Lessons learned
The previous successes GlobalMedic saw in Haiti were recognised by Time magazine in its 2010 Time 100 issue, but it was during that mission the rescue teams realised improvements could still be made. As they lost valuable hours whilst driving into towns riddled with rubble and debris, the idea grew for the use of UAVs.
Singh explains: “We knew that if we just had a drone up that showed us which way to go, the results would be phenomenal. It would have given us information we could have acted on and we could have saved many more lives.”
Since then, reflects Singh, many lessons have been learned from the use of drones: “Putting two ‘birds’ out with one truck and one pilot, and being able to fly in different directions so you can cover many different areas, from a logistics’ point of view just makes it so much more efficient.” He adds that they continue to learn on a practical level too: about charging the battery; the type of support the teams need with the system; and how to best transfer data and upload images. “There are tons of lessons we learned from when we first started using them,” Singh says.
The future is clear
For Singh, the future of UAV usage as part of overall rescue efforts is clear: “If you think about the very primal need for it; often there is no cellular phone coverage when you come to an emergency, and you have no clear picture of where the needs are. So, if I can fly a UAV over a school, and find out there are 500 people in one building, and five in another, you can then share that intelligence with other agencies.”
For Singh, there is no doubt UAVs will have a clear positive impact on future relief missions, and GlobalMedic will continue to use them: “The reality is that if we don’t have the imagery or this intelligence, we’re not going to make good decisions, and this can adversely affect tens of thousands of people … Unfortunately, there is only one thing we can guarantee: Ecuador will not be the last disaster, and we know there will be other ones. So we just want to make it more efficient than it already is.”