Testing the use of drones for emergency flood response

Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff analyze a map of the affected area
©UNICEF Malawi/2017/Jacob Nankhonya

By Judith Sherman, Chief of HIV/AIDS, UNICEF Malawi

At 9 am on 8 November 2017, the Deputy Director of Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA), Dyce Nkhoma, received a phone call from Salima District saying that “heavy rainfall has occurred in the Maganga area, roads are impassable and there is a strong likelihood that individuals are stranded.”

He alerted the Vice President, and activated a communication procedure to inform the Malawi Defense Forces, Ministries of Defense, Civil Aviation and Health, Meteorological Services, Police Commission, United Nations and various NGOs.

UNICEF’s Matthias Boyen observes a drone landing after a surveillance mission in Salima
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Jacob Nankhonya

The call was part of a simulation exercise. The Deputy Director requested that drones be deployed immediately to survey the area so that search and rescue teams could be sent for survivors and to assess the extent of the damage. Two drone companies were sent to the affected area, accompanied by data analysts. In Salima district, an Emergency Operations Center was established and District Cluster groups, with representatives from UN and other humanitarian organizations, began preparing for an influx of displaced people and the post-flood response. Journalists from national media arrived to report on the situation.

The drones were sent off from a primary school, where local police had secured a takeoff and landing zone. School children jumped and cheered as quadcopter and fixed wing drones took to the skies. Twenty minutes later the drones returned with data that was quickly analyzed by Geographic Information System (GIS) specialists.

Hundreds of curious children gathered to watch the flights, scanning the sky to try and spot the drones. 
© WeRobotics/2017 / Joel Kaiser

Working with the Community Civil Protection Committee, stranded survivors were identified, along with damaged infrastructure and affected crops. Two search and rescue teams, armed with the coordinates and Global Positioning System (GPS), were speedily deployed. However, the teams were not bringing back real people, but wooden planks spray painted yellow, green, blue and red, each color symbolizing either a survivor, affected crops, damaged infrastructure or a flood zone. Within an hour, all the planks had been retrieved.

The simulation exercise was part of a three-day training with the Government of Malawi, supported by UNICEF, to integrate drones into the national disaster risk preparedness and response framework. Facilitated by the Swiss-American NGO WeRobotics, the workshop provided information on best practice in using drones as part of an emergency response, including roles and responsibilities and codes of conduct.

Participants gained practical skills and hands-on experience through the simulation. Of particular importance, ten District Disaster Response Management Officers gained a solid understanding of how drones could complement their risk preparedness and response activities at the district level.

UNICEF Malawi’s work on drones in emergencies began in 2016, as the organization prepared for the upcoming rainy season. Malawi experiences floods every year; sometimes these are massive, as in 2015 when over 200,000 people were displaced. Usually, they are restricted to specific flood-prone areas.

In February 2017, floods occurred in Salima District. Following a request by DoDMA, UNICEF deployed drones to assess the flooded areas. Two months later, Karonga District experienced floods and, again, UNICEF activated an assessment by drone. The information obtained by the drone was particularly valuable given the impassable roads and collapsed bridges that occurred in these districts.

Following the flood response, in order to assist the government’s preparedness, UNICEF began working with districts to map areas of potential flooding and identify at-risk villages. As part of the humanitarian information management working group, NGOs and UN agencies began discussing the best ways to analyze and share drone-obtained imagery and data.

As Malawi heads into its 2017–2018 rainy season, UNICEF and the Government’s aim is to be prepared with better knowledge of flood prone areas, in order to enhance early warning systems, and to have systems in place to utilize drones in an emergency response. Given the results of the simulation exercise, it looks like Malawi is on the right flight path.

The rescue team trying to locate flood survivors, as part of the simulation in Salima 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Jacob Nankhonya

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