Technology to the Rescue - Drones and AR for Tornado Response

Tornadoes are the most violent of atmospheric storms, approximately 1200 occur in the United States each year (National Severe Storms Lab). The aftermath of a tornado is a minefield of damage; debris from buildings and homes block streets, people are trapped or injured, fires occur, water and gas lines leaks, and power lines are down. The challenges are extensive and emergency management services require the best possible technology.

Small drones with augmented reality are being evaluated as tools for disaster relief.  In May 2017, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University used drones with SmartCam3D View.  The students worked in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.  The images and video accompanying this article were captured in the aftermath of an EF2 tornado in Elk City Oklahoma in May 2017.

Drones are catching on as valuable tools for many reasons. Small unmanned aircraft systems or drones are affordable and accessible communities of all sizes. A drone delivers the view available from a helicopter at a fraction of the cost.  Plus drones are agile, able to fly at low altitudes, offering detailed inspection of storm damage.   Drones may be equipped with a variety of sensors including infrared cameras which can find a human in the dark when many search and rescue missions occur.

When augmented reality (AR) is added to a drone, operational efficiency for emergency management is further improved.  Augmented reality overlays such as street names and landmarks are blended in real time on the video; the overlays add instant location information leading to faster decision making.

For example, if a drone is flying over a street that is blocked or destroyed the extent of the damage is obvious with AR affected street name is shown in the video.  The location information may be relayed immediately to incident commanders.  Armed with this knowledge, the commanders dispatch assistance and resources via the most direct route to those in need.

Drones with AR improve relief efforts in other ways.  Pilots may add notes to homes which have been checked for survivors or add other information such as, downed power lines, pets or any information useful to incident managers. In the video above, homes have been evaluated for livability or insurance claims, the designations show as flags (designations are not official and for demonstration only).  These examples are tornado specific however drones with AR are valuable in managing many disasters; floods, hurricanes, wild land fires, landslides and hazardous material spills.