Automated Drone Surveillance for Damage Assessment in Disaster Relief Efforts


In the wake of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria which devastated the Gulf area this summer, millions of people were left without power. Re-establishing power lines when they are downed in a hurricane or tropical storm is of very high priority in relief efforts, as many basic needs require power.

_ “what you do first is you bring in crews to assess the damage so that you can very clearly understand what is needed so that when we use the logistical support that FEMA and the military have available, we're bringing in the stuff that's needed most…” _ –Devon Streit; Department of Energy

The first step in repairing power infrastructure is reconnaissance. In order for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send in support, they need to know what support is needed and where. The more effectively and efficiently this information can be collected, the sooner the power lines can be brought back online.


Our proposal is an automated system for gathering this data. One user can send out several drones on planned routes, following power lines. These drones will follow their planned routes autonomously, so that one pilot can manage many drones simultaneously. Cameras on board survey the power lines the drones are following and alert the pilot when an anomaly is detected (downed line, contact with fallen tree, etc). The pilot is equipped with a HUD on a Microsoft HoloLens. When the drone alerts the pilot to a potential power line issue, the pilot can switch over to a First-Person view from that drone. The camera rotates on its two-axis gimbal in accordance with the orientation of the pilot’s head, as measured by the HoloLens. In this way, the Pilot can visually assess the area and determine whether there is in fact an issue. If it is determined that there is an issue with the power lines at this point, the GPS coordinates are saved to a list along with a memo describing the problem. Because the drones fly and detect issues autonomously, a large area can be swept out in a short amount of time, and the pilot can spend their time analyzing the anomalies instead of maneuvering the drones. Only one pilot will be needed to survey a huge area.


Nonprofit and governmental relief organizations commonly conduct surveys of afflicted areas to determine what help is needed, and where. Integrating our new system with current relief efforts is as simple as sending a pilot along with the equipment during one of these surveys. It won’t add any significant extra expense to the mission, apart from the cost of the equipment and the transportation expenses. From a home base location, each drone is set up and takes off, moving autonomously down its planned route. Battery voltage monitors will alert the pilot and override the plotted course when it is imperative for the drones to return to base, greatly reducing the risk factor. The single largest risk associated with implementation of this system is a malfunction in a drone, causing it to fall, and potentially strike a person or cause property damage. This is true for any quadcopter. It is possible that a falling drone could strike a power line and cause even more damage to the infrastructure. This is, however, unlikely. Beyond power line assessment, this technology could also be implemented for search-and-rescue operations to sweep out a large area at once. Instead of searching for anomalies in cable lines, the drones would instead search for movement or human-like shapes. Perhaps they could be outfitted with infrared sensors instead of regular cameras. In this scenario, drones could also be carrying small payloads with medicine and food in case they find the missing persons, to provide some support while rescuers head to reach them. Implementation of this system currently presents some legal issues. Currently, a drone is not to be flown beyond direct line of sight of the pilot. Further, it is completely unprecedented for one pilot to control many drones at the same time, all beyond direct line of sight. In order for our system to be legally utilized, there either must be exceptions made to the law for the case of disaster relief efforts, or the laws requiring direct line of sight must be relaxed.

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