Japan’s Devastating Earthquake Highlights the Expanding Role of Drones in Disaster Relief

The recent devastating earthquakes in Japan have highlighted the need for a full-scale emergency response effort that can save lives and rapidly assess and mitigate the damage. Ground crews, road vehicles and conventional aircraft still shoulder most of the burden for rescuing earthquake victims and providing medical supplies and long-term disaster relief.  But specially equipped UAVs can perform some critical support roles in the overall relief effort.

For example, drones can conduct a comprehensive aerial assessment of the entire disaster area, allowing for strategic planning and prioritization of the relief effort.  They can also survey areas that might be appropriate for building temporary housing.  Drones can maneuver more safely inside collapsed buildings to search for victims and can even establish two-way communications with survivors beyond the reach of traditional rescue crews.  Drones can also drop badly needed supplies, including fuel, food, medical kits and blankets to trapped or stranded residents and rescue crews.  And specially equipped firefighting drones can douse blazes and direct fire-fighting crews to the source of the conflagration.

Integrating drones into the disaster relief effort takes careful coordination.  Many traditional air- and ground-based rescue crews are not accustomed to drones and some may even resist ceding an operational role to them.  In Japan, the UAS Industrial Development Association (JUIDA) put out a call to its members to assist with response efforts through collaboration with the Ground Self-Defense Force’s 10th Division which had chief responsibility for the relief operation.  Many different Japanese UAV companies, including Aeronext, Next Delivery, ACSL and Drone Operation, ended up participating in the effort at the direction of the 10th Division.  As a gesture of good will, all of the companies involved provided their services pro-bono, except for operations specifically contracted by the Japanese government.

The role of drones in disaster relief could be substantially expanded, experts say. ACSL and Aeronext, both Japanese owned, are pioneers in the development of custom-built unmanned aerial surveillance and logistics drones that can operate safely at long-distances with remotely-piloted or even autonomous BVLOS capabilities.  The two companies have collaborated since 2019, and in 2021, introduced a prototype known as the 4D Gravity 2 logistics drone that coincidentally was field tested in Kawanemoto Town in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture last October, just two months before the recent earthquakes.

The two companies are currently taking advantage of Japan’s recent deregulation of BVLOS flights to become the premier disaster relief solution throughout rural Japan.  They’re also expanding the same logistics capability for day-to-day cargo deliveries to remote and inaccessible areas beyond the reach of conventional road vehicles.  In fact, the two companies could soon find a way to perform these same missions outside Japan.  Last May, for example, ACSL announced it was formally entering the US drone market and would soon field test its PF2-AE Disaster-Relief/Patrol drone.  The small quadcopter, which is equipped with an assembly of high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras, is designed to provide quick field assessments in areas inaccessible to emergency workers following natural disasters, including earthquakes and typhoons.

The company – Japan’s largest by head count and market share – just established a subsidiary in southern California.  It’s also preparing to introduce its data-secure SOTEN drone for infrastructure inspections.

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