Drones Mapped the Philippines to Improve Typhoon Aid Efforts

Where communities only have outdated satellite images and hand-drawn plans, drones created impressively detailed maps.

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May 9 2014, 4:45pm
Image: Drone Adventures

These drone images are far more than your vanity-shot dronie: They’re maps of the Philippines post-Typhoon Haiyan, and they’re helping to deliver crucial aid to communities devastated by the disaster.

Drones might not have been employed in the initial search-and-rescue operations when Haiyan hit, but it looks like they've now found a place to help out in the aftermath.

Switzerland-based Drone Adventures, which has in the past undertaken drone photography missions in Haiti and Fukushima, took the images to help out humanitarian organisation Medair, who were struggling to provide the most efficient aid to affected regions because they lacked what most of us take for granted in the age of Google Maps: a detailed plan of the area.

Image: Drone Adventures

“In a lot of places they work the satellite imagery may be 10 years old and completely out-of-date, low resolution, and you can’t really pull much information out of that,” said Adam Klaptocz, co-founder of Drone Adventures. Other communities simply use hand-drawn maps. So drones were brought in for a much-needed update.

The main reason Medair needed detailed maps was simply to assess the disaster areas in order to find out where most needed shelters. “They really need to get a sense of how much damage there is where, and where the help is most needed,” said Klaptocz. The fact is there just aren’t enough shelters to go around, so finding out where they are most critically required is important to provide the most effective aid. 

The aerial images from the drones were able to create broad maps of the area that were detailed enough to show damage. If you zoom into areas in the map below, for instance, you can see palm trees stripped horizontal by the typhoon.

Even as drone photography gets more advanced, the detail and scope of the images is impressive. Drone Adventures writes that the total of four maps cover a huge area—48.6 square kilometres—with resolutions down to five centimetres per pixel. The images 5,139 images that make them up were gathered over 29 flights with a combined flight time of 11.6 hours.

To do this, the group used eBee drones, which caught our eye earlier this year at CES. They’re fixed-wing UAVs made by senseFly (which Klaptocz also works for), and they’re made for mapping. “They have software which pretty much automatically creates flight plans and controls the drone automatically from start to finish,” explained Klaptocz. 

Image: Drone Adventures

After hand-launching, you select an area from a base map and the software figures out how best to fly over the area and take pictures with just enough overlap. The images are then stitched together to make what they call “geo-referenced orthorectified orthomosaics”—which Klaptocz described as “a fancy word for an image where every pixel is replaced and calibrated to be exactly where it is in real life, in its actual GPS position.”

In short, it’s a lot more accurate than your average fish-eyed drone shot. And when they were out there, Klaptocz and his team soon realised that the maps produced were valuable to more than just Medair. The villagers themselves had use for maps for their own construction efforts, both to build up the destroyed buildings and generally plan and expand their community. 

So the team took drone maps of the various villages and got them physically printed, as many of the communities aren’t online. 

Drone Adventures already has further plans to work with conservation efforts to count herds of antelope in Namibia and to map archeological sites in Turkey, among others. Amid the evil (war) and the trivial (cool pics), it’s nice to once again hear of drones put to good use—and to see high-quality mapping tech reach those corners untrodden by Street View.

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