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  • Drones edge towards affordable disaster tool

Speed read

  • The use of drones in disaster relief has been held back by the expense of their airframes

  • A project is now making designs for cheap, durable and adaptable drones freely available

  • This should mean drones are now one of many tools organisations can use for disaster relief

An open source initiative that offers designs for adaptable, durable, and — above all — cheap drones mean they are now a feasible option for disaster relief efforts, according to the project's co-founder.

OpenRelief's second generation drone airframe was made available online last month (31 May). It can be customised and has easily replaceable parts, making it ideal for mapping terrain, and locating missing people and smoke in tough disaster relief situations, says Shane Coughlan.

"We are not trying to build the most elegant, light, or highest-performing frames, but rather if a part breaks, you can replace it easily and cheaply," he tells SciDev.Net.

Coughlan believes that while open source software has developed rapidly, the airframe itself has been the biggest limitation for drones' widespread use.

Current drones built using off-the-shelf chassis within the price range of most small government and nongovernmental organisations are too flimsy and short-ranged for punishing disaster relief work, he says.

By providing complete designs free online, a suitably hardy drone with engine, autopilot, onboard computer and basic cameras could be built for around US$1,000 — five to ten times cheaper than commercial alternatives, Coughlan adds.

“The more people that have access to this technology, the more opportunity there is to get eyes in the sky where they are needed."

Shane Coughlan

Users can adapt this basic set up to their needs, including adding radiation detectors, better cameras and engines capable of carrying a nine-kilogram payload.

Drones have been tested for a variety of humanitarian uses, from delivering relief aid to setting up a movable communications network during disasters.

The demands of using computer design programs and constructing the airframes limits who can build them, but plans to produce ready-made kits by next year could further widen the technology's reach, says Coughlan.

This could eventually reach a point where even local organisations in developing nations can own several drones, he adds.

"My experience is that relying on one organisation [for disaster relief] is a recipe for potential problems," he says. "The more people that have access to this technology, the more opportunity there is to get eyes in the sky where they are needed."

Providing open source designs and networks is "really exciting", says Jane Rovins, executive director of Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, an international research programme.

But to maximise the impact of DIY drones on a local scale, the initiative should target interested groups within communities — such as model plane clubs — which already have the necessary skills to build, repair and operate the machines, she says.

Nonetheless, however widespread drones become, they are only one of many important tools for disaster response, says Rovins.

Other traditional approaches, such as using helicopters to survey sites and for search and rescue, for example, will remain important, particularly when weather conditions prevent drones from flying, she adds.

Responding to Rovin, Coughlan warns that while amateur enthusiasts could play a role in drone-based disaster response, the OpenRelief machines are significantly different from hobby planes, and are aimed at trained professionals in local emergency services.
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