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Integrating Drones into Disaster Response Operations

By Anthony Galante, Jeremy Nikolow, and Dr. Chuck Russo

On April 25, a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through the heart of central Nepal. The quake tore through the Kathmandu Valley, which lies along the southern edge of the Himalayas, with a devastating force equivalent to approximately 20 hydrogen bombs.

The resulting devastation crippled the region razing entire villages and cities. There are more than 6,000 confirmed dead, however, the Nepalese Prime Minister said the death toll could exceed 10,000. Almost 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes and are now at risk of starvation, dehydration, injury, illness, and, ultimately, death.

The geographic extent of this seismic catastrophe has been astonishing. The force of the quake reached Mount Everest, more than 100 miles away, causing an avalanche that killed 19 people and left hundreds stranded. About 90 miles to the north, the shock unleashed a monstrous landslide. Additional deaths and missing persons have been recorded in the neighboring countries of Tibet, India, Bangladesh, and China.

Challenges for Rescue Personnel

search and rescue

As with any natural disaster, the main challenge for search and rescue teams is safely locating and rescuing people who have been injured, trapped in debris, or cut off from urbanized areas. However, there are many challenges that prevent rescuers from physically accessing many of these areas.

First of all, the physical landscape remains incredibly unstable. The day after the quake there was a violent 6.7-magnitude aftershock that further exacerbated the destruction. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported 3 to14 aftershocks could be expected within the few weeks following the initial quake with a 54 percent chance of a 6-magnitude or higher. Each aftershock causes avalanches and landslides that continually alter the landscape. Further, Nepal is rapidly approaching its monsoon season and currently being pounded with incessant, torrential downpours, which leads to mudslides.

The culmination of these factors, along with the naturally mountainous topography, has rendered much of the area inaccessible. Previously established highways, roads, and trails have been wiped from the landscape, making it impossible for rescue vehicles to navigate the terrain. Even in urbanized areas, the wreckage is so severe that rescuers cannot make their way through the rubble to search for people. Currently, the only safe and effective means for search and rescue is through air support.

Traditional Air Support Is Ineffective in Nepal
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and the government is grossly underprepared for disaster recovery. Apart from the vast shortage of medical and relief supplies, the country only has a few large HAL Dhruv helicopters that are designed for search and rescue missions.

Also, Nepal only has one helicopter training school. “We do not have the helicopters that we need or the expertise to rescue the people trapped,” said Nepal’s Chief Secretary, Lila Mani Poudyal.

In the wake of this disaster, Nepal has been fortunate to receive monetary donations, humanitarian aid, and equipment from more than 20 countries. Some countries have sent aircraft (mostly planes) to assist with the search and rescue efforts. Despite these donations, the country lacks the necessary air-support vehicles, training, experience, and rescue equipment.

Of the aircraft they do have, there have been numerous reports of faulty communications equipment. Further, the treacherous weather conditions have hampered the limited communications, making search and rescue flights that much more dangerous.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Can Help
The utilization of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) during such a disaster could prove greatly beneficial. UAS are capable of flying in areas inaccessible by traditional planes, gathering photographic evidence to provide rescuers with more intelligence about the damage. Providing such actionable intelligence to those in charge means leaders can make more informed decisions and ultimately save more lives.

Here are just some of the benefits of UAS:

  • UAS can carry several different payloads that are beneficial for search and rescue teams.
  • Electro-optical sensors that provide instantaneous images to rescuers.
  • Infrared sensors can identify hotspots where potential victims might be buried.
  • Collected imagery can help search and rescue teams develop efficient search patterns without duplicating efforts. These images can be stitched together to produce an overall high-definition picture of the affected area.

Additional benefits from high-definition pictures include being able to identify obstructed roads, flooded areas, fires, and damaged critical infrastructure. Having this needed information at the onset of the incident allows those in charge to quickly identify and dispatch proper resources.

[Related article: Paris Terrorist Attacks: How UAS Could Have Aided Police Response]

The Need to Adopt UAS in the U.S.
The United States is not immune to this level of disaster. Major California earthquakes have registered between 7.0 and 8.0 in magnitude and Alaska has experienced several earthquakes over 8.0. It is not a question of whether an earthquake of similar magnitude will affect the U.S.; it is a question of when.

When disaster strikes, will public safety agencies be able to utilize all the tools available to save lives? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still working on how to successfully and safely integrate UAS into the existing National Airspace System (NAS). These delays only increase the chances of such an event happening and public safety agencies not having all the tools needed to effectively respond. UAS can and should be part of the rescuers toolbox and the sooner this tool is available, the better.

About the Authors:

Anthony Galante_cropped_v2Anthony Galante is part-time faculty of Criminal Justice at American Military University. A former SWAT officer and current law enforcement officer with more than 10 years of service, he holds a Masters of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. He is also a graduate of American Military University with a MA in Homeland Security in 2012 and a MA in Criminal Justice in 2011. In addition to university teaching, Anthony is the lead instructor at the Unmanned Safety Institute, which is a strategy and technology firm delivering consulting, training, and analytics for clients in commercial industries and law enforcement seeking to integrate UAS into their daily operations. Offices located in Maitland, FL and Washington, DC. To request more information visit or email

Jeremy NikolowJeremy Nikolow is a police officer with the Daytona Beach Police Department, FL and adjunct faculty with colleges and universities. His law enforcement career began in 2005 and has involved several areas of patrol, investigations, SWAT, and specialized operations. Jeremy presently serves as a field training officer. He graduated from American Military University in 2012 earning his Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice.

Chuck RussoDr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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