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Lessons From Mapping Geeks: How Aerial Technology is Helping Pacific Island Countries Recover From Natural Disasters.

Michael Bonte-Grapentin's picture

For many Pacific Island countries, natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis, are an all-too common occurrence. Out of the top 15 most at-risk countries for natural disasters globally, four are Pacific Island countries, and Vanuatu is consistently at the top.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, and knowing the extent of damage was vital for the government to identify and plan reconstruction needs. A team of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) experts were sent out to quickly establish credible estimates of the damages and losses. Many damage reports were already available from the field, but with varying quality, and the challenge was to consolidate and verify them, within a very tight timeframe. Cloud cover also prevented us from getting satellite images, so we mobilized two UAV teams to fly below the clouds and capture high-resolution footage showing the impacts on the ground in the worst affected islands in Tafea and Shefa province.

Challenges continued throughout, from needing to coordinate airspace with those flying relief goods into affected areas, to transferring massive datasets over low internet bandwidths. But with team-effort and ingenuity, solutions were found; the UAV teams were able to capture valuable damage footage within sampled areas during the day, which were analysed overnight by volunteers of the Humanitarian Open Street Map (HOT) and the Digital Humanitarian Network; new workflows were developed to collate the data and to feed the outputs into the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment.   
 

Interpreted damage information post-Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, 2014: red – destroyed houses, orange – partially damaged houses, blue – no obvious damage to house.