Carrie Brooks


June 04, 2018


When we think of technological disruption too often it is about worries about the future of work.

We forget that technology has the power to improve and even save lives.

For instance, drones are being used to locate people in harm’s way of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano:

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) this week described how live-streamed video from one of its unmanned aerial vehicles helped guide emergency responders to a resident whose home looked to be on the verge of getting swallowed up by the lava flow. Live footage from the flying machine was then assessed by a remote team so that it could direct the rescue group along the safest escape route.

“[The drone] helps prompt and guide evacuations and led to the successful rescue of a resident after a lava pond outbreak sent a very fast pahoehoe flow” down one of the Big Island’s streets, the USGS said in a Twitter post on Wednesday, May 30.

We are starting to witness the beginning of technology’s disruption of disaster relief.

In May, the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center and Tata Consultancy Services convened experts from across industries and sectors for the “Digital Empowers: Accelerating Innovation for Business and Social Good” forum.

One panel discussion – moderated by U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C_TEC) Senior Vice President Tim Day – explored the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in disaster relief efforts.

Representatives from UPS, ERUdyne, Field Innovation Team, and Lockheed Martin shared ways in which their organizations are piloting programs and developing the resources to respond to disasters of various forms.

UPS Director for Humanitarian Relief and Resilience Programs Joe Ruiz indicated that the company is turning to robotics, and more specifically drones, for medicinal and public health needs. Car crashes and preventative disease services in underserved countries are among the incidents in which such technology has had an impact.

“Once people see the potential, they want to try it,” Ruiz said.

Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories Robotics and Intelligent Systems Group Leader Dr. Kingsley Fregene illustrated the impact of data in pre-planning for disasters. With information on-hand about catastrophes, scientists and engineers are able to create better models and provide accurate information to response teams, allowing for more adept, on-time relief efforts.

ERUdyne President Suzanne Novak doubled-down on this. She noted that real-time data allows family members and loved ones to receive timely updates about areas and individuals impacted by disasters. A crisis management team processes these tools and then distributes information.

Field Innovation Team Chief of Operations and Engineering Denise Spell focused on “The disaster that happens after the disaster.”

She illustrated with a case study. In a test of ship-to-shore delivery of outgoing blood samples and incoming medication in a remote location, Field Innovation Team needed to know what secondary disasters were occurring that could impact the shipment. For this reason, the team opted to use drones to survey conditions in the remote area.

Spell described the work that drones do as “The kinds of things that people can’t do after a disaster.”

All four panelists indicated that the role of AI and robotics will expand in time.

In explaining this, Spell expressed the importance of integrating technology into the communities it serves.

She advised opening a dialogue with communities and listening to what’s happening on the ground. Doing so allows companies and organizations involved with AI to address the cultural sensitivities at play and thereby provide solutions with which people are comfortable.

In his experience, Ruiz said, locals must feel comfortable with robotics before they can appreciate it.

He illustrated UPS’ efforts to engage communities on the ground. In Rwanda, Ruiz’s team was able to work with them to understand drone technology. Now, AI operations are run completely by workers on the ground.

Collaboration is also important. As Tim Day put it, “We need to continue the conversation and continue to work together on these issues.”

Each of the companies represented in the discussion partner with NGOs and governments at every level to implement drone technology.

AI and robotics currently play critical roles in a number of disaster scenarios – from supporting refugees to surveying wildfire conditions.

Regardless of the situation, the data and assistance provided by this technology is invaluable. It accomplishes what humans cannot.

In order for these capabilities to expand, companies must continue to work with governments, organizations, and communities to develop this technology and apply it further to aid victims of every disaster.

As Ruiz said, with drone technology “No community is too remote to help.”

About the authors

Carrie Brooks