/ 3 June 2024

Advanced aerial technology can be used to mitigate disasters

Safrica Accident
Tragedy: Officials at the building in George which collapsed on 6 May. Teams are still digging for the bodies of missing workers. Photo: Willie van Tonder/AFP

There is risk to living on planet Earth, whether it be firestorms, torrential floods, landslides, earthquakes — or collapsed buildings. 

The recent collapse of a partially constructed building in George, flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and the firestorm that decimated Knysna, are stark reminders of the risks of, and the physical and emotional trauma that result from, disasters. 

We also find ourselves in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and some say we are entering the fifth. We are on the cusp of an era where technology will have a revolutionary impact upon the quality of our lives, including how we plan for, mitigate and deal with disasters. 

The use of advanced aerial systems is one area where the latest technology is being put to good use. Turkish authorities claim that it was one of their Akinci drones which discovered the helicopter crash site of the late Iranian president Ibrahim Raisi. It does seem ironic that the leader of a country that sold drones to kill people in Ukraine should be found by one upon his death. Drones are becoming ubiquitous, whether for good or bad. 

Humans are mediocre at best when responding to short-term disasters with high impact. The recent collapse of a building in George witnessed the unfolding of a tragedy. It must have been excruciatingly painful for the victims and the families and friends of those trapped in the rubble. 

Could we have used aerial technology in mapping the disaster site and better understood the risks for the rescue-and-recovery teams? Could aerial technology have been used to detect the presence of human life under the rubble? Questions about how we could have responded better will always remain. 

Humans are awful when responding to slow moving threats. South Africa is not immune to the impacts of climate change, whether natural or caused by humans. The government, the private sector and communities must reduce the risk posed by flooding, fires, drought and the other effects of global warming. Advanced aerial technology needs to be integrated into risk mitigation strategies — not only once a disaster has occurred but also in the prevention, early detection and monitoring of slow emerging disasters. 

Welcome to the world of High-Altitude Pseudo Satellites. Pseudo-satellites have been in existence for many years but mainly used by the military. 

Either solar powered, or fuelled by hydrogen, pseudo-satellites fly in the stratosphere where the air is very stable. The benefit is that these aircraft can loiter for weeks and can be deployed to monitor phenomena such as the impact of droughts, flooding and pollution. Unlike satellites, they fly rather than orbit around the earth. They are more easily deployed to specific sites for monitoring and don’t require major effort to change position, as satellites do. 

Advanced aerial technology  is not only used by governments and the private sector. Illegal logging in French Guyana and Brazil was detected by non-governmental lobby groups. Images of the widespread burning of forests to be used for grazing were provided by drone technology. Drones have provided irrefutable evidence of governments’ slash-and-burn strategies in South America. 

We need to perceive our planet as a deeply interconnected organism, with all its parts working seamlessly with one another and reliant upon each other. It is also a planet which is tempestuous and has a proclivity for violent outbursts. Advanced aerial technology provides us with an alternative perspective where our planet can be continuously monitored for freak storms, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis — and the ability to proactively manage disasters. 

The Aerotropolis Institute Africa will host a webinar on 25 June to discuss this topic with Amit Ramdath of Autonosky, Anas Al-Hamati of Gift of the Givers and Johan Minnie of the City of Cape Towns’ Disaster Risk Management Centre. Please visit our website www.aia.ukzn.ac.za for more information. 

Brad Mears is a commercial pilot and drone instructor and is the education project manager at Aerotropolis Institute Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.