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The expanding
roles of emergency
drones for disaster

Author: Gary Hilson

As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) starts to loosen the reins on autonomous flight regulation for drones, emergency drone capabilities are expanding to support emergency response and disaster management in myriad ways. Testing, research and development are elevating the drone industry and pushing the limits of what is possible.

The drone market has grown substantially in recent years, with the drone services market size expected to grow to $63.6 billion by 2025. Behind this growth and expansion of use cases are drivers from the following industries: construction & engineering, fossil & renewable energy, telecommunications, media, insurance, and public safety. 

Emergency drones in disaster response

Drones for disaster response support public safety and emergency response management in a variety of ways with the following benefits:

  • Provide data in near-real time to inform decisions on the ground
  • Provide data to support situational awareness
  • Operate in dangerous areas so that first responders don't need to be put in harm's way
  • Cover large swathes of area, including remote and hard to access areas, allowing for more efficient use of public safety personnel and resources
  • Provide technical capabilities that humans cannot, such as thermal or infrared scanning

Fire prediction, detection and fighting

Researchers, such as those at the University of Montana, have started using drones for disaster response prediction—particularly forest fires. Drones can carry instruments to measure temperature, humidity, location, wind speed and direction.

Major utility companies are investigating how tools such as drones and artificial intelligence might help reduce the risk of future conflagrations and for inspection of infrastructure to help head off fire risk.

Emergency services in California have implemented the use of drones to help detect forest fires, which can provide insights into the type and amount of resources required on scene. Thermal detection sensors can be mounted onto a drone; these sensors use infrared radiation to help detect heat signatures allowing first responders to locate fire hotspots. These innovations can show where fires are most likely to spread.

Drones developed in partnership with the Department of Interior have been used in firefighting, particularly through controlled burning. During the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire in Colorado, a drone dropped small incendiary balls to ignite the canopy and create a more effective containment line and deny fuel for the wildfire.

Skyward and Verizon responded to the Big Hollow Fire by remotely deploying a drone connected over 4G LTE to monitor communications infrastructure, keep people connected, and monitor the progress of the fire without sending personnel into a potentially dangerous situation. Such an operation requires a strong safety case, a clear purpose, and explicit permission from the FAA.

Search and rescue

The Department of Homeland Security has led research into the use of emergency drones in search and rescue operations. Thermal sensors can help detect people where they can't be easily seen—trapped under debris and rubble or taking cover for safety until help arrives. Drones can also fly into areas where manned aircraft cannot, such as tunnels.

During a flash flood, drones can offer a bird's-eye view of where water is flowing and can help to predict where it will rise, as well as spot people in distress. This allows first responders to create more efficient evacuation plans by identifying risk areas and determining how best to relocate people, be it via land, air or boat. Public safety personnel can also use drones for disaster response in similar situations, such as earthquakes, hurricanes or landslides.


Drones for disaster response can also be utilized to survey the damage in the aftermath of a natural disaster or catastrophic event. Drones sent into the skies capture video feeds and snap photographs to help assess damage. This data brought back by the drone can be used, for instance, to detect burn-scar impacts that can help prevent future disasters such as flash flooding or landslides due to the lost trees and vegetation.

Drones with communication antennas can help restore comms for first responders after the loss of traditional lines of communication. When communication lines are down, it’s harder to connect people with water, food, medical supplies and other equipment. Emergency and medical drones may also be used in the future through the delivery of life-saving automated external defibrillators (AED) and emergency medication as drones may have the ability to arrive at the scene of the emergency more swiftly.

Drones and innovation

Through research and collaboration efforts, industry is looking to accelerate the innovation process and development of UAS that can autonomously navigate by using 5G, edge compute and AI. Edge computing will eventually allow drones to process large amounts of data in near real time in the field so that advanced analytical and artificial intelligence programs can support mission-critical services and enhance decision making.

Verizon recently announced the first off-the-shelf drone with Verizon network connectivity. Its camera can capture 48-megapixel imagery and 4K ultra-high-definition video. Its obstacle-avoidance technology is omnidirectional, meaning it can intelligently dodge buildings, people and other hazards no matter what direction it's flying. It also includes advanced encryption for data storage and transmission, as well as protection against malware, data breaches and would-be hackers.

Learn more about how Verizon can help to keep you response-ready with emergency response solutions.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.