When earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis strike, aid groups race out expecting to help survivors desperate for food, water and medical aid. These days, they are encountering a new breed of survivors: Those who also want to charge their mobile phones.
Technology is changing both the type of disaster aid and the way it is delivered, said international experts gathered at a conference on humanitarian aid in Bangkok last week.
Increasingly, survivors are taking charge of their own situation by requesting power for their mobile phones and access to the Internet. Through these, they contact relatives abroad, figure out safe travel routes and arrange for money to be transferred.
"It really is a huge need and communities prioritise it over access to other things," said Ms Meghan Sattler from the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a network of organisations coordinated by the United Nations World Food Programme.
Disaster rescue teams, meanwhile, are using increasingly data-intensive communications systems - that may incorporate voice with images and text - to assess stricken zones and are pushing aid agencies, donors and private companies to develop communication equipment that can be shipped easily and be operational as soon as it is unpacked.
When Nepal was struck by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April, the ETC dispatched emergency satellite terminals within 36 hours. These were housed in rugged boxes, each weighing under 32kg, and came with a balloon that stretched 2.4m high when inflated, creating a satellite connection that provided wireless Internet access.
In Chautara, a badly affected town east of the capital Kathmandu, one of these Wi-Fi hot spots had a range of some 5,000 sq m, benefiting 1,000 humanitarian workers from 130 organisations within its first month of operation.
Nepal was also where an unprecedented number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, were first used for humanitarian aid in a coordinated manner. These small, remote-controlled devices are used by hobbyists and journalists to take panoramic photographs, and are also being eyed by corporate giants like Amazon as a potential way to deliver parcels in the future.
According to Dr Patrick Meier, founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, 15 teams of drone operators, each of two or three such vehicles, worked closely with the local community and among themselves, sharing aerial surveillance shots of disaster-affected areas that helped medical corps and security agencies determine where aid was most needed.
"The UAV response to the Nepal earthquake was the most coordinated UAV response in history," he told The Straits Times in a Skype interview. "And we had a code of conduct that did not exist two years ago, through which we could hold ourselves accountable. It was a huge step forward."
Despite the lack of specific drone regulations in Nepal, these teams sought permission from the national and local authorities as well as kept in touch with the communities they were piloting the drones in.
On the flip side, drones were used by journalists and those Dr Meier calls "disaster tourists" to take voyeuristic pictures of the devastation without permission. Sixteen of these drones were confiscated by the police, he said.
The use of drones has sparked debate in recent times because they can not only invade privacy, but also pose a threat to aircraft and internal security. While Singapore has passed a law restricting their use, the United States, for example, has yet to put in place specific regulations.
Yet their potential in humanitarian aid is vast. Lighter and more powerful drones coming on stream can be used to transport vaccines, water filters, first-aid kits and satellite phones to inaccessible areas, said Dr Meier.
Mr Travis Heneveld, who heads the United Nations and international accounts at communications firm Motorola Solutions, envisions drones being fitted with sensors that can detect signs of life under rubble too dangerous for people to reach into.
It would allow rescue workers to "get a reading of (possible) live cellphone activity with the person who has a phone in his pocket who is under the building", he told The Straits Times.
Meanwhile, live video feeds - difficult to achieve in disaster zones because of bandwidth constraints - could become a reality.
In March, Motorola invested in drone maker CyPhy Works, which is developing models that can be tethered to the ground using a data and power cable slimmer than a headphone cable.
Such drones would be able stay aloft for days - compared with a few hours now - providing continuous streaming of high-definition video through attached cameras.
In the future, these drones could also be adapted to provide telecommunications network coverage in areas where base stations have been wiped out. Their presence would be welcome relief in a world where data access is fast turning from a frill to a need.
This article was first published on June 22, 2015.
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