How Drones Helped after the Earthquake in Ecuador
On 16 April 2016, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador, causing over 660 deaths, thousands of injuries and widespread destruction across the north-west part of the country. In the aftermath, drones were used to help assess the damage caused to buildings and roads.
The earthquake was the worst to hit the country in over 40 years – and it was followed by close to 200 aftershocks in the next 48 hours. Among the many local people who responded to the disaster were groups of volunteer drone pilots, with 10-12 drones among them, who worked closely with government and aid groups. Local entrepreneur and engineer Francisco Ruiz was one of those volunteer drone pilots. Ruiz worked with and as part of the UAViators roster of pilots alongside local government authorities by flying drones to collect data in the affected areas, with a particular focus on mapping damaged roads and areas at risk of landslides. The constant shaking had shifted the soil in many places, which had significantly increased the risk of landslides in the mountainous area that had been particularly badly hit.
— FSD (@fsd__ch) November 4, 2016
Ruiz and other volunteers were able to analyse and publish data less than three days after the earthquake, providing maps with the most up-to-date information available. The data was shared publicly on OpenAerialMap, thus ensuring that as many people as possible could benefit from their work.
According to Carola Gordillo, a Quality Control Manager with the Ministry of Transport, the data from the drones was critical for the government to quickly understand the damaged caused to the road network. She emphasised that it was equally important to assess areas surrounding the roads, including hillsides and slopes, to understand the damage and to prioritise the response. Gordillo and her colleagues accompanied many of the drone flights and were able to cover 1,000 kilometres of roadways in three weeks.
“With drones, you could go beyond just the roadways and see the diagnosis [of damage] more clearly,” Gordilla said. “It allowed us to go to higher risk areas. Not so much risk in terms of danger, but more so in terms of time and space; areas that are hard to reach and more remote.”
The Canadian organisation Global Medic also sent their staff to Ecuador quickly after the earthquake. Global Medic has been using drones in emergency operations for the last six years and had already integrated them into their emergency response toolkit. Working with the National Secretariat for Risk Management, GlobalMedic’s drone team quickly produced maps to help assess the damage in the worst-affected regions. Just over a week after the earthquake, the team had mapped more than 5 km², covering areas where roads were blocked due to landslides.
In addition, several private companies volunteered pilots and equipment. AeroVision for example focused on supporting the army in assessing buildings. After initial scepticism, the military and the government soon requested that the drone pilots accompany them on each assessment, explains AeroVision’s Trevor Bergmann.
According to Bergmann, the drones were not only able to expedite the decision-making process, “ [they] also kept teams safe from dangerous buildings by evaluating their structures.” For this purpose, a structural engineer from AeroVision looked at the drone images and provided estimates whether damaged buildings were safe to enter or not.
Interest but no concrete plans
Despite the very positive experiences that both the government and the military had when working with the drone pilots, none of them said they were planning to invest into the technology. Instead they expressed interest in continuing partnerships on a pro-bono basis or with local universities.
Drones in Humanitarian Action is partially funded by DG ECHO. The views expressed in this blog post should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.