Managing Natural Disasters, Protecting Endangered Species, And Enhancing Our Knowledge: Proof That Drones Can Do Good

By William Houstoun
posted on March 16, 2014 in Politics and Society

On January 23, 2009, three days after his historic inauguration, President Barack Obama ordered his first tactical strike via an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)—better known as a drone. Since then, drone strikes have become the United States’ signature weapon in fighting the global War on Terror.  Regularly portrayed in the media as a faceless killers – terrorizing civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – or as a potential tool with which the government could monitor and ultimately kill citizens on U.S. soil (as Rand Paul famously theorized during his 13 hour filibuster), it is no surprise that a PEW survey conducted in May found that the administration’s drone policy is condemned in just about every foreign country, and receives only partial support from the U.S. public.

These machines are new and futuristic; the public doesn’t know what to expect from them. They’re dynamic, coming in many shapes and sizes, and with seemingly endless capabilities. Despite their rapidly increasing versatility, UAVs have continuously been portrayed one dimensionally: as the face of the U.S. military and its power to forcefully disperse justice. But before the Obama Administration ramped up its drone campaign in Pakistan, UAVs had been slowly and quietly employed for non-military duties, helping mitigate natural disasters both domestically and abroad As the perception that UAVs are robotic killers slowly erodes, it is important that we once again study how they can be implemented to further enhance human capabilities and avert disasters.

Speaking at the Stimson Center, a think tank based in Washington, DC, Colonel Dana Hessheimer, a commander in the California Air National Guard, described how UAVs were instrumental in combating the Sierra-Nevada Rim Fire this past August and October. By providing a bird’s-eye view and real-time information to firefighters on the ground, UAVs allowed responders were able to more effectively track and contain the fire as it developed, and also identify spot-fires outside the containment zone before they strengthened. Further, when time was of the essence, and fire fighters didn’t have the resources to knock on every endangered house’s door to make sure the residence was evacuated, UAVs served as virtual neighborhood canvassers: using infrared cameras to identify recently used vehicles, they quickly and efficiently identified endangered people without diverting manpower.

“Allowing the predator (to be used by firefighters) now, encouraging it into our world, we now can get real time information,” Hessheimer said. “Now we can set the pace, we can dictate where the fire goes. Not the other way around.”

At the same event, Chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance for the United States Air Force Major Ryan Simms described how UAVs were crucial in assessing the initial danger posed by Japan’s nuclear reactor at Fukushima immediately following the earthquake in 2011. When the plant was initially hit and its reactors were sent in to a partial meltdown, the radiation emitted from the plan was thousands of times above the standard safety threshold. With radiation levels that high, human and manned aircraft could not get in close and assess the damages without putting human lives in severe jeopardy. With time very much a factor, the U.S. was able to launch small UAVs from a base in Guam and conduct fly-bys of the reactors, monitoring their temperatures and assessing damages while relaying crucial information on developments in the contaminated zone to emergency responders, who had few alternatives. 

Though he could not speak in detail as the operation was ongoing, Simms confirmed that global hawk drones were active in the Philippines within “one hour or two hours” after Typhoon Haiyan hit. This fast response was a testament to the lessons learned from previous missions. Due to enhanced cooperation between USAID, the Department of Defense, and the Philippine government, UAVs were lined up and ready to deploy before the Typhoon hit. Simms could confirm that UAVs had so far flown three missions, taken over 300 photos, and were playing a role in identifying “locations of people, damage to infrastructure, helicopter landing zones, and the status of roads and bridges.”

In Japan and the Philippines, and in other missions the Global Hawk has flown in, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Simms has seen the quick response and long endurance of UAVs as a “force multiplier.” Being able to take off within 12 hours of notice, travel thousands of miles, and maintain constant surveillance for up to 30 hours, he sees these machines as revolutionizing the way nations respond to natural disasters and enhancing their response and aid capabilities.

Having highlighted how UAVs are enhancing the U.S. capacity to respond to natural disasters, it is important to note that not all UAV usage is coming from the military. Dr. Thomas Snitch, Professor at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies and leader of the Sky Shepherd Project, has been employing a single, low-budget UAV to monitor endangered species in the South and Central African bush. By using their UAV to develop topographical maps of the bush, Dr. Snitch and his team of students and local park rangers are able to more effectively monitor elephants, rhinos, and other large endangered species. Using the UAV to view both the roads and the areas where animals converge, the team can more accurately predict where poachers will strike, and can thus be more prepared to intercept and stop them. Compared to the old method of driving along a park fence, looking for signs of illegal entrance, the UAV is proving a more efficient use of time and resources while also protecting valuable wildlife.

As the stigma surrounding drone technology dissipates with an increased understanding of the opportunities for good UAVs present, it is essential that lawmakers modify laws accordingly to facilitate the easy and immediate use of this technology when responding to emergencies. Hessheimer acknowledged that using UAVs for this purpose is still relatively unchartered territory, and lawmakers are reluctant to be the first to propose their domestic use. It took three days to gain necessary approval from the FAA and Department of Defense to use a Predator UAV to respond to the Rim Fire; once active, Hessheimer and the firefighters present estimated that the use of the drone cut the need for containment by at least four days.

Though it is undeniable that UAVs have brought death, destruction, and fear to the Middle East and Central Asia, it is important to recognize that UAVs do not have to be a tool for war. Their enhanced capabilities can save lives, save money, and can help better protect the United States and the world. This technology isn’t going anywhere. The sooner we adapt to new technologies and work to incorporate them into our daily lives, the sooner we can boost our security and quality of living.