UAVs to the Rescue: A New Tool for Emergency Management

Date Posted

Smart technologies are creating a new way of life in the 21st century - your morning coffee starts brewing before you even wake up in the morning. Self-checkouts have replaced cashiers at many retail stores. Cars can even park themselves.

Unoccupied Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are one of the most promising and powerful new smart technologies right now. A UAV, more commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Already vital to industries such as agriculture, defense and weather monitoring, UAVs have the unique potential to transform emergency management as we know it. By leveraging UAVs alongside traditional manned relief efforts in an emergency, operations can be conducted faster, safer and more efficiently.

Imagine emergency responders virtually accessing areas too dangerous for people on the ground or for manned aircraft, such as sites with nuclear radiation contamination or toxic fumes. In an emergency situation, UAVs have the unique ability to respond where humans sometimes just can't. UAVs have a variety of potential applications:

  • Assessing damage
  • Providing immediate situational awareness
  • Locating lost or trapped individuals
  • Performing structural analysis of damaged infrastructure
  • Delivering needed supplies and equipment
  • Capturing images from inaccessible places

Emergency Preparedness

Emergencies can happen anywhere and at any time. Being prepared and planning ahead is critical to protecting public safety. UAVs can assist with risk assessment, mapping and planning in advance of an emergency, helping individuals and businesses understand and manage risks and plan effectively, which can reduce overall damage and losses. This also allows for a quicker rebuild and recovery phase. Not only are UAVs very accurate, but they are also easily transportable and rapidly deployable. This makes the UAV the perfect tool to assist in an emergency. UAVs are not only able to aide responders by providing images and videos, but they also can provide a valuable resource for determining how to actually approach relief efforts. 

Point cloud showing northern landscape
Point cloud image (set of data points in 3-D coordinates) of a Project CLEANS remediated legacy mine in northern Saskatchewan.

Case Study

In 2014, SRC worked on a project with TransGas to obtain aerial imagery from right-of-ways or pipeline crossings through agricultural areas north of Saskatoon, SK that were difficult to access due to the fairly high density of farm yards and development in the region. The project also included multiple compressor stations.

Those same images proved useful later that year in an emergency response situation when a natural gas leak and corresponding fire occurred at a TransGas storage cavern facility located six kilometres south of Prud’homme, Saskatchewan.

“We had flown that site before the incident, so we actually used the pre-incident imagery to aid in the incident response. We had a good, accurate map in our command centre in Regina,” says Kent Schoenroth, Senior Engineer, System Integrity at TransGas. “We also had SRC go out and fly a flight immediately after the fire had been put out…that’s been used for evaluation of our response. It will be a good record for things like insurance and review of whether we put equipment in the right spot and did things the right way because much of the equipment that was used in the response was still in place.”

Schoenroth is also a member of the Pipeline Research Council International and has recently had the opportunity to share some of TransGas’s learnings with them. “I’ve been able to share some of our post-incident response images or experience with other operators at a conference that were considering how to use UAV for incident-type response situations.”

Sky's the Limit

There's potential for our UAV to assist in emergency preparedness and we're exploring the application of additional UAV technologies to assist in emergency response situations in the future. Safety is an over-riding priority at SRC, so it makes sense for us to look at opportunities to assist in these types of situations. As new tools are developed to increase their level of effectiveness, the potential for the future use of UAVs will only continue to advance.

No one can predict when an emergency is going to happen. But when it does, UAVs, along with other smart technologies, are going to start playing a bigger part in the response, the recovery and the rebuild. Additional Resources