Drones help clean up typhoon-hit Tacloban


Posted at Nov 28 2013 11:14 PM | Updated as of Nov 29 2013 07:14 AM

TACLOBAN - Drone technology is helping the aid-effort in typhoon-hit Tacloban city, enabling relief teams to more efficiently search through debris, clear roads and assess damage.

For the past 10 days, Swiss-based technology firm Danoffice IT has been deploying two drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), to scour the disaster zone and identify blocked roads and dead bodies.

The drones can aid in search and rescue, body recovery and road clearance, Danoffice IT sales manager Liam Dawson said while demonstrating the device on Wednesday (November 27).

It can also aid displaced residents or clearing units in giving an overview of a damaged area, instead of walking or driving through debris.

Danoffice IT has been helping the United Nations, national relief teams and aid agencies with its UAV, developed in the last four years in Denmark.

The drones fold away into a small case and are made from rugged plastic similar to that used in the popular children's toy, Lego, which also originated in Denmark.

The unit has a maximum range of 2 kilometres (1.24 miles), can travel at altitudes of 40 centimetres (1.3 feet) to 150 metres (5 feet) above the ground, and runs on a battery for up to 25 minutes.

One relief team from South Korea turned to Dawson's company after their own drone broke down, deploying it to back up a sniffer dog unit.

"Body retrieval, depending on the zone, when the dogs find a person it's not always in a very accessible zone, so this allows the rescuers to find the best possible and swiftest path possible to go and retrieve that body," Dawson said.

The use of UAVs in disaster zones is controversial, with critics saying loose regulation in developing countries allows firms to easily infringe privacy rights in many areas of crisis.

Dawson says the reaction from aid organisations has been overwhelming, with back-to-back bookings for his services.

"When organisations first saw it here, they thought it was a bit of a toy. But when they realised all the different uses you could do like body retrieval, road clearance, you name it, I think this is a tool that will be used in every future disaster," Dawson told Reuters.

His company is not charging for the use of its drone in the Philippines, but will encourage organisations that deploy it to buy one at a later date. Each drone costs $50,000.

Meanwhile, a small aid team of German medics were treating patients in the typhoon-hit town of Palo on Thursday (November 28).

A team of 10 from German aid organisation Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB), including two doctors and eight medical staff, started relief operations on Monday (November 25) in the grounds of a local cathedral.

They are providing primary medical care to the town of 70,000. They are the only health facility in the nearby area except for a nurse at the local mayor's office, their head of mission said.

"We are here now in Palo, directly in the old town. Palo has a population of roughly 70,000 people. And for these people, we are the only large and functioning health facility. Just across where the mayor is, there is only one nurse and one can only imagine that the capacity there is very limited," the centre's head of mission, Axel Schmidt said.

"The next hospital or the nearest hospitals are located in Tacloban, that's almost 50 kilometres away, and we receive patients here that come from up to 25 kilometers away and that's a very strong indication how important our presence here is," Schmidt said.

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest ever to make landfall, has reached 5560, with 26,136 people injured.

Schmidt added that the centre is treating more than 150 people every day, with respiratory illness currently the most common.

Though survivors coming in have no physical injuries from the storm surge, many require psychological support.