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American Red Cross takes serious look at using drones for disaster relief, holds off for now

Drones could be invaluable for disaster response workers, according to a new study. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

A new study, commissioned by the American Red Cross, calls drones one of the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief efforts.

The report, which will be announced Tuesday morning at the American Red Cross’s Washington headquarters, was conducted by Measure, a start-up that provides drone services to companies around the world, along with several of the Red Cross’s corporate partners.

Measure met with the American Red Cross’s Richard Reed, its senior vice president for disaster cycle services, in the fall to discuss a potential partnership. Reed encouraged the group to come back with examples of how the Red Cross could use the technology.

“This study puts us all in a much better position to at least think critically about this technology and how we might want to leverage it,” Reed told me. “The application and use for this in the disaster environment, I would say is pretty new. There’s lots of opportunities, there’s lots of questions that probably still need to be answered and due diligence needs to be done. But I think at some point this technology will come to bear.”

A major question mark for Reed is regulations. Commercial drone operations are illegal in the United States without an FAA-granted exemption, and rules likely won’t be finalized until 2017.

“We certainly don’t want to do anything that is not sanctioned or regulated in a way that makes sense,” Reed said. “We need to have some clarity around what is the policy environment these things will operate in.”

Since the Red Cross relies on donations, Reed stressed the importance of being able to make a cogent argument to donors about the Red Cross’s plans. A 2014 Associated Press poll found that only 21 percent of Americans favor commercial use of drones.

Tuesday’s report pointed to situations when drones already have proved useful, plus examples of future opportunities.

“There’s just all sorts of information that first responders are desperate to have and in many cases the only way to get it is through an unmanned vehicle that can hover and fly quite low to the ground,” said Justin Oberman, Measure’s president.

Drones outfitted with cameras can broadcast a live video feed to emergency workers, providing them a better understanding of their circumstances. This provides many benefits such as knowing where is safe to set-up their operations. Survivors can be located. The levels of flood waters can be tracked. Supplies, provided they aren’t too heavy, can be delivered.

“If there’s a hurricane on its way up the East Coast, and you suspect that you have some high-profile locations in your state or territory, you could use drones to take some real-time snapshots so that you can understand the state of those facilities, say it’s nuclear facilities or schools or hospitals,” said Jerome Ferguson, the director of autonomous systems at UPS, which contributed to the report.

The report mentions how the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency is testing drones to measure radiation emitted from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. There’s no risk of a pilot being exposed to radiation, plus lightweight drones can fly safely at lower altitudes than helicopters.

Texas A&M professor Robin Murphy, who was consulted for the report, says that proper use of drones can cut days of the initial response to a disaster. She says that each day that is trimmed from the search-and-rescue operation of something like Hurricane Katrina translates to years off the recovery.

Murphy sees the most potential in finding a way for first-responders, insurance claim workers and governments workers to share drone footage immediately after a disaster.

“The bigger problem is how do you train them, what are the best practices, how do we share the data,” Murphy said. “It’s not just getting a nice platform that won’t fall out of the sky, it’s getting the right data from that, for the right person at the right time.”

Murphy, who has researched disaster robotics since 1995, is well-acquainted with the regulatory and privacy concerns that need addressed to make Americans comfortable with drones. She had planned to fly drones to assist in the 2014 Oso mudslide recovery in Washington, but the flights were scrapped when a local government official objected.

Globally concerns about drones are also emerging, at times hampering humanitarian efforts to aid disaster recovery efforts.

“It’s been interesting to see how fast we want from total Wild West to something where it’s rapidly shifting to the default is that you can’t do it without permission, but there’s not necessarily clear rules for how to you get permission,” said Dan Gilman, a United Nations humanitarian affairs officer based in Asia, who wrote a paper on using drones in humanitarian responses.