Technology Used in Disaster Relief Saving More Lives Every Year

Every year, more and more lives are saved thanks to the advanced technology used in disaster relief.
John Loeffler

Were it not for the advanced technology used in disaster relief and management, the loss of life from earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or other natural disasters would be as unimaginable as they were in even the recent past. At present, an estimated 160 million people are affected by natural disasters and around 90,000 people are killed every year, according to the World Health Organization. Thanks to technology, however, there is every expectation that we can bring these numbers down even further.

Every year, drones help responders survey damage and search for survivors. Artificial intelligence systems monitor social media for insight into where the worst damage is located, and new materials and technologies are developed to aid survivors who are rescued from disaster. As our technology advances, more and more deaths appear preventable, prompting researchers to work that much harder to develop new ways to respond to natural catastrophes.

Artificial Intelligence to Bring Order to Chaos

One of the most modern advances of recent years is how AI is used in disaster relief, a unique function of our modern age thanks to social media.

During every natural disaster in recent years, social media users have broadcast real-time information about the impact of a disaster in their area, amny without even realizing it. This is something never seen before in human history, providing real time documentation from the source of a disaster affected area in need of assistance. But how does one process all of this data?


This is precisely the sort of thing that AIs are good at. Using AI in disaster relief, responders can comb through thousands of Tweets or other social media posts to identify disaster-related content, much of which is even tagged by their social media app with a user’s location.

Artificial Intelligence for Digital Response (AIDR) is open-source software designed to “filter and classify social media messages related to emergencies, disasters, and humanitarian crises.”

Sponsored by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, AIDR is capable of parsing through social media content to tag thousands of posts every minute as disaster-related, structuring the data for use in software systems to visualize the disaster-affected areas via maps, dashboards, or other systems that can analyze the data.

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Drones as First Line Responders

Disaster Drone
Source: DFID - UK Department for International Development / Flickr

The first three days after a natural disaster are the most critical when it comes to saving human life. People trapped on rooftops, under rubble, or in isolated areas need to be found and rescued before they succumb to the effects of the disaster that imperiled them.

For human responders on the ground, this is an almost impossible challenge and is what has traditionally made disasters so deadly throughout human history; you cannot save people you do not know need help or whom you cannot reach. To combat this, it is common for responders to take to helicopters or airplanes to survey the damage and try to identify areas in need of ground-based responders, who can then rush to areas most in need of assistance.

This, however, has problems of its own. Often, in the direct aftermath of a disaster, fuel becomes increasingly scarce, and it might not be possible to have large numbers of aircraft in the air, limiting the area they can cover.

 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, fill this niche perfectly. Lightweight, portable, and efficient, drones can be sent out en masse after a disaster to cover a broader area, with better precision and resolution than manned aircraft. Drones use in disaster relief has exploded over the past decade as the become a more cost effective way to monitor an area.

They can even be equipped with infrared cameras to see inside damaged structures for signs of life that might not be visible to human responders and their ability to navigate tighter flight corridors allows them to get closer to disaster-affected areas, giving controllers unprecedented visibility into areas that might need assistance.

On The Ground Relief

While macro-level systems for disaster relief and management matter, we can’t forget that disasters are about people on the ground in need of help.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico in 2017, access to clean drinking water became a major problem for people on the island. With no way to tell if a water source was safe to drink, survivors had to take chances on water sources that later were shown to be heavily contaminated, causing unnecessary illnesses and even deaths.

Just such a circumstance is what the Public Lab DIY Spectrometry Kit is meant to prevent. Using simple materials recycled from other sources, the spectrometry kit allows anyone with a working laptop and some open-source software to analyze a water sample to check for a whole host of possible contaminants.

Source: World Congress On Ecological Sustainability

Another important water technology is the C-Water system, developed by Chinese engineer Chao Gao. A simple piece of transparent plastic, the C-Water is placed on the ground or in shallow water.

Water vapor will begin to accumulate inside the device’s filter, which is then heated up by the sun. Water then condenses on the inclined roof of the C-Water and runs off into a collection tray. After two days of exposure to the sun has killed off any remaining microbes, the water is then safe to drink. 

Providing shelter for people displaced by a disaster is also a big concern, as people’s homes are often lost in the disaster and tents provide little protection from the elements. The Concrete Canvas Shelter by Concrete Canvas Ltd. offers a better solution to the standard canvas tent.

An inflatable structure made of a cement-hybrid fabric, these structures can be built from an airtight container to a full sized shelter in less than an hour. Using a polyethylene frame to stand up the structure, it is inflated using an electric fan and the fabric is doused with water.

After 24, the cement will cure into a solid concrete structure that is both waterproof and fireproof. 

Life-Saving Technology Can Make The Difference in a Disaster

With no shortage of disasters around the world, technology is essential to ensuring that people’s lives are preserved wherever possible. Thanks to the rapid advances in technology used in disaster relief, there is a lot of hope that we can reduce the number of deaths every year even further.

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