How technology is providing a lifeline in natural disasters

by Joakim Reiter | @Joakim_Reiter | Vodafone Group
Wednesday, 20 September 2017 14:50 GMT

The photo shows the Vodafone Foundation Instant Network, a portable mobile network, being set up in the Philippines in 2012 following Typhoon Bopha. VODAPHONE FOUNDATION TEAM

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How robots, drones and other innovations can transform emergency relief operations

By Joakim Reiter, Group External Affairs Director at Vodafone

Hurricanes and an earthquake in North America, severe floods in South Asia and landslides and drought in Africa. Climate and weather disasters have affected nearly every continent in 2017. Since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled to around 400 a year.

Natural disasters cause havoc, displacing millions, rendering many homeless and damaging vital infrastructure. While there are no simple, quick fix solutions in disaster management, technology is providing relief.

Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, NASA’s ‘Finder’, a small suitcase-sized device, helped to rescue four people buried 10 feet underground after detecting their heartbeats.

Other innovations are enabling displaced loved ones to contact each other and aid agencies to carry out their work.

The Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), an initiative from the Red Cross, enables humanitarian workers to identify mobile phones in the vicinity of a disaster zone and send out mass text messages with urgent updates - from information on where to find clean water to medical advice. First developed in Haiti, this has been rolled out across the world.

Crowd sourced media is becoming an essential means of communication and a source of information following a disaster. The Ushahidi-Haiti project crowdsourced information from the Haitain population using social media sources, while Twitter was used in a similar way following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Tools such as MicroMappers are analysing big data for social good in disaster situations, combining crowdsourced social media (with geolocation information) and artificial intelligence to make sense of social media posts during a disaster. As well as keeping those on the ground safe, the maps let aid agencies know which areas are in most need of assistance.

When power and communications are down, NGOs and charities such as Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) and the Vodafone Foundation step in, setting up critical communications facilities. TSF is currently in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma, working with the Vodafone Foundation's Instant Network team to help restore communications on St Martin. 

The Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network ‘mobile network in a suitcase’ and the smaller Instant Network Mini 'mobile network in a backpack' are examples of practical technological applications used to help restore communications following natural disasters across the world. These portable networks are taken to disaster zones alongside Instant Charge, an outdoor mobile charger for 66 mobile phones, and Instant Classroom, a ‘digital school in a box’ designed for use in schools in refugees camps and repurposed to create cyber cafes to provide free internet and access to devices. 

The Foundation’s Instant Network team has been deployed 11 times following the biggest disasters in recent years, including the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, where over 443,000 calls were made and 1.4 million SMS were sent. A total of 2.9m calls were made using the Instant Network in the Philippines, Kenya and South Sudan.

A series of technological innovations currently in the early stages of development could further transform humanitarian relief in a disaster situation.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has discussed the potential for 4D programming - objects that can not only be printed, but could also later change shape and transform on their own thanks to geometric code. The university sees potential in creating infrastructure in disaster zones using self-assembling materials, where conventional construction is not feasible or expensive.

The future potential for robots and drones in disaster emergency relief is a further area in early development. Robots, such as those developed by MIT offshoot Boston Dynamics, could enter dangerous, difficult-to-reach territories following natural disasters and be programmed for search and rescue, while the potential for drones to airdrop aid into disaster zones is being explored.

We are yet understand the true impact of these newer technologies in a disaster situation. Although the current use of technology - from enabling someone to send a simple text message to tell a loved one, “I'm alive” to detecting a heartbeat deep underground - makes the case for further collaboration among the private sector, governments, international organizations and NGOs in humanitarian relief following a natural disaster.