Unmanned Systems and Hurricane Matthew: Lessons from 2010 Haiti Earthquake

As Hurricane Matthew approaches Haiti, it is hard not to think of the terrible devastation from the 2010 earthquake. The Haiti earthquake taught us some valuable lessons about the use of unmanned systems for the initial response to a disaster- that 0-24 hour period where emergency managers are trying to get an accurate assessment of the scope of the disaster and how to allocate resources to save lives immediately and mitigate any dangers, and to set in motion the plans and resources needed to protect lives and quality of life for the longer term. One key lesson is that bigger is better, at least for the initial aerial assessment. Another is to not forget about unmanned marine systems. These two lessons show up in other events such as other hurricanes and tsunamis. A lesson that did not come out of Haiti was that the effective use of unmanned systems in the 0-24 hour time period depends on communications. UAVs generate terabytes of imagery that are difficult to upload to the Cloud or file transfer/email to others.


In terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, Haiti makes an interesting case study. The Haitian government quickly put out an aviation notice that UAVs were prohibited. Period. That actually made sense given that there would be a lot of helicopters working at low altitudes, general air traffic control was complex enough, and that UAV coordination with air traffic control was still being worked out (and as of 2016, it’s not 100% resolved to this day). What was interesting was that the US Government put up a Global Hawk (see Peterson, Handbook of Surveillance Technologies, 3rd Edition) which provided aerial assessments of the extent of the damage without entering the Haitian airspace and two weeks later Predators were being used and coordinated with manned air traffic (see http://northshorejournal.org/high-tech-warbird-aids-haiti-relief-efforts). While on one Snowden-we-are-being-watched level, this may be disturbing to have drones able to see into other countries without violating airspace, on another it is wonderful. Emergency workers can get data without having to totally rework how multiple government agencies coordinate. The most important aspect of the use of military drones is that it illustrates that agencies need higher altitude, longer persistence UAVs geographically distributed disasters, in order to get the rapid coverage of damage (area X needs help) and state of the infrastructure (what is the best route to get resources there?). As we have seen with flooding in the US (we have a paper about to come out on this), small hobbyist-styles of UAVs are like flashlights illuminating small patches, while military drones are stadium lighting. Of course, big drones or Civil Air Patrol assets may not be available. This leads to the questions as to whether small hobbyists quadcopters can contribute, how to aggregate the data from hobbyists and send it (especially under low bandwidth conditions), and how can agencies handle the volumes of data and trust the data they are getting. These are some of the issues raised in my article at https://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2016/05/mco2016050019-abs.html


The second lesson from Haiti in terms of unmanned systems is to not forget the value of unmanned marine vehicles. If the hurricane brings intensive flooding or high storm surges, then the underwater portions of the critical infrastructure are at risk. This means bridges (I’ll never forget crossing the bridge into Punta Gorda for Hurricane Charley and the team being told not to stop on the bridge because there was not way to know how safe the bridge was). Bridges are important but also ports and shipping channels. It also mean pipelines, which can be leaking and affecting the environment, and telecommunications (the 2015 Texas Memorial Day floods washed away the bridge and the telephone lines to Wemberly). In Haiti, the state of the ship channel was unknown (had any depths changed?) as was the over port (could it take the weight of cargo being unloaded onto the docks?). The traditional approach has been to use divers, but in Haiti, the Navy and Army MDSU 2 team used SeaBotix ROVs to speed up the assessment as noted in Disaster Robotics (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/disaster-robotics).


Disaster Robotics has more information about unmanned systems at the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

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