Ultimately, local leaders, communities, and people have the onus of managing a disaster. We had a similar experience in all the past disasters affecting the east coast of India. At the same time, there’s a lot that technology has to offer in every stage of disaster management, and it’s the right time to introduce technology such as drones and AI for improving disaster response.
May 3, 2019. Cyclone Fani, a category three cyclone, made landfall on India’s East Coast, primarily affecting the state of Odisha. Within hours, most of the vertical structures, including electric poles, coconut trees, hoardings, and many houses, were brought down to dust. Thankfully, due to proper planning, fatalities were minimal—however, livelihoods were severely affected.
Local NGOs invited the India Flying Labs team—Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), Humanitarian Aid International (HAI), Udhyami, and Integrated Volunteers Network—to support Odisha and volunteer for drone-based disaster response. As a team, we invited partners from all over India to join us, and more than 25 teams signed up. We proposed using drones for damage assessment, producing aerial maps, and improving machine learning. With the help of a WeRobotics microgrant and additional sponsorship from HAI and CYSD, we conducted a demonstration for two villages in the Puri district with drone teams from Pixlaer and Technology from Wildlife. We presented the outcomes and sought stakeholder opinion on implementing the idea within the state. Our plan was proposed to the State Secretariat.
What followed was an earnest attempt to build local capacity in both scaling up the idea and forming a local task force within Odisha that would be available to more systematically and more cost-effectively respond to the next disaster. Having this local task force is critical to ensuring that the region is more prepared for the next disaster.
We announced our Drones and Data in Disasters workshop and, once again, with the help of CYSD, HAI, and our local youth leader Amit Lal, a diverse group of participants from Odisha, Bangalore, and Mumbai signed up for the workshop held at the end of August. Facilitated by Dr. Ruchi Saxena and Rakesh Ranjan, the workshop included all practical aspects of using drones and data in disasters, including the Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct, national and international laws and best practices, rapid assessment tools, open maps, and mission management. Ashish Malviya from Mumbai gave the group a demonstration of drone flights and the use of thermal imagery. We gave hands-on exercises on Google Maps, Google Earth, Open Street Maps, HOTOSM, Pix4D, Picterra, and Drone Deploy. Several other open source applications were presented. The floor was left open for scale-up strategies, and we are glad that each participant stood up to shoulder the responsibility of working towards promoting the ethical use of drones and data and showed a keen interest in learning this technology in many details.
We are humbled by the response and support received from the people of Odisha and look forward to working on hundreds of projects conceived by the young local leaders to create the ecosystem necessary for the application of drones for social good in Odisha.