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Improving Disaster Response through Aerospace Technology

By Kyle Libby

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A cataclysmic series of natural disasters in 2017, particularly in the western hemisphere, exposed a widespread lack of disaster preparedness, as well as many shortcomings in recovery strategies. Several severe earthquakes struck Mexico and a series of hurricanes and tropical storms tore through the Caribbean, decimating Puerto Rico and dealing considerable damage to Texas and Florida. The days following hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or other disasters require a coordinated and timely deployment of response resources, but recovery efforts are often stymied by a lack of information, disrupted communications, and hazardous conditions. In these circumstances, the aerospace field offers tremendous capabilities for effective disaster response. With the use of satellites, drones, and other aerial technologies, responders can identify areas in need of aid, establish clear routes, restore communications, and crowdsource imagery data to provide rapid, cost-effective analysis. By analyzing the capabilities offered by these aerospace technologies, it becomes clear that increased funding and development would prove a boon to effective disaster response and recovery.

Projects already in place highlight the importance of the aerospace realm in disaster situations, but also reveal a difficult path for further development. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) satellite division operates the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series, the first line of defense against natural disasters. The most recent model, GOES-16, enables the vector tracking of storms and the identification of flash floods, hail, and tornadoes.1 From the satellites in geostationary orbit, NOAA receives continuous updates by the half-hour, providing a constant source of critical information to the benefit of affected areas. While evidence clearly shows2 that the strength and frequency of meteorological events are increasing,3,4 the Trump administration has directed that NOAA’s satellite division will be cut by $513 million,5 including a 22 percent reduction for the satellite division. The cuts could amount to a dereliction of the emergency response system, trading long-term disaster preparation and mitigation for short-term fiscal advantages. Reduced situational awareness produces slower responses and increases unnecessary evacuations, resulting in further potential casualties and higher total spending.

While GOES provides a swath of imagery and environmental data, particularly for natural disasters, the cost-benefit analysis indicates that it is worth the price tag. For example, by improving forecasts and thus reducing the number of unnecessary evacuations, GOES produces an estimated $1.4 billion annually in benefits.6 With a ten-year life-cycle of $10.83 billion, GOES-16 is cost-effective for storm preparation alone, not counting benefits from improved forecasting in aviation, boating, and air quality, among others.7,8 However, NOAA is not the only entity to capitalize on the positive potential of the aerospace realm.

Reducing the budgets for critical situational awareness programs is a first step toward increased vulnerability.

Elsewhere in aerospace imaging, DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite imagery provider, focuses on high-resolution, multispectral imagery for disaster response and recovery. Multispectral imagery offers a degree of information and clarity that standard imagery does not generally provide. The company’s Open Data program was created to provide “high-resolution satellite imagery to support disaster recovery in the wake of large-scale natural disasters.”9 During the December 2017 fires in California, DigitalGlobe’s satellites were able to provide ground images despite the shrouding effect of large smoke clouds. Such information improves firefighters’ ability to identify vulnerable structures and forecast the direction of the fire, an invaluable service in emergency situations where wasted seconds can mean lives lost.

While useful, the satellite images themselves require processing and analysis to become practical for disaster relief. While there are programs that can automate the identification of areas of interest, crowdsourcing can improve the accuracy of such analysis. To address this need, DigitalGlobe hosts a volunteer imagery analysis website called Tomnod. Campaigns can range from identifying the habitats of seals in Antartica to spotting washed-out bridges and landslides in hurricane-affected areas.10 By providing before and after imagery, volunteers can tag viable routes for responders and help with damage assessments.11 While accuracy and precision of human analysis may come into question, Tomnod takes into account where the preponderance of tags have been placed; places with more tags from various users are considered more likely to be a legitimate result, requiring a critical mass of concurrence. Crowdsourced analysis can be immensely beneficial to slower recoveries over large areas, where the quantity of data to be analyzed can quickly outpace the capabilities of a single disaster response team.

Disasters also frequently damage communications infrastructure, either limiting or preventing victims and responders from communicating effectively. While satellite communication is possible, its costs and reliability are as of yet prohibitive. Alphabet, Google’s parent organization, has developed a method for quickly patching the communication gaps created by natural disasters. Instead of attempting to rebuild cell towers or replace underground cables to restore service, Project Loon lofts a fleet of communications balloons over the affected area. In 2017, following Hurricane Maria, the Federal Communications Commission approved an experimental license for Project Loon to launch over Puerto Rico.12 In the aftermath of the storm, it provided 100,000 residents intermittent access to internet and text messages.13 By restoring connectivity, the technology allows affected populations to provide critical updates to disaster response efforts.

Closer to the ground, the use of drones in disaster areas has been increasing as of late. The senseFly eBee is an automated drone mapping system that, though toy-like, rapidly provides complex, three-dimensional mapping.14 This technology had been adopted by first responders to swiftly acquire low-level, granular pictures of disaster zones, allowing for the identification of critical context and needs at a personal level. Manually flown drones also enable short-range, live video in otherwise unreachable areas. The difference between low-level drone imagery and multispectral satellite imagery is in time and detail. While a satellite’s persistence is a benefit for longer operations, it can take time to reposition to collect the needed imagery. The eBee’s automation and maneuverabilitiy allow data collection to happen immediately over a tailored and potentially hazardous region.15 As an example, drones can be used in floods to identify those people who need aerial rescue and could even be capable of deploying life preservers.16,17 Drones promise enormous potential for expediting and improving rescue efforts and demonstrate another way aerospace technologies can change disaster response and recovery for the better.

Given the potential of aerospace technology and the ramifications of halfhearted disaster response, cutting funding for aerospace technologies should prove antithetical to lawmakers’ purpose. Reducing the budgets for critical situational awareness programs is a first step toward increased vulnerability. Policymakers should focus on the long-term cost savings of these disaster-management programs, as their contributions have been comprehensively analyzed and shown to be positive.18 Mitigating the extent of the damage with proper foresight, and boosting recovery times with advanced disaster-response technology, can reduce loss of life and economic malaise. In this light, NOAA’s budget should not be cut, and more investments should be made into aerospace technologies for disaster response and recovery. As global climate change may increasingly influence the frequency and severity of disasters on the global scale, these technologies will only become more critical.

Kyle Libby was a research intern with the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS.

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