Nepal Earthquake Response: Lessons Learned from the Use of UAVs

  • Emma Schwartz
  • June 29, 2015
Nepal Earthquake Response: Lessons Learn

Information is power. When collected and communicated effectively, this information can save lives and help drive resources for long term recovery in the wake of emergency and disaster.

When Team Rubicon deployed resources in response to the Nepal earthquake, the team brought a framework for turning imagery into information to aid in relief operations. While applying this assessment framework, the team recognized a lot of room for improvement in information and coordination structures to enhance relief operations.

Prior to the earthquake, there was no statute around the application of UAVs in the country, making for challenges in keeping up with the evolving ambiguity and fluctuation in relief processes and requirements. It was also recognized that too much emphasis was being given to the technology versus the information it has the potential it has to produce, where this information is the product of the imagery collected by UAVs and not the imagery itself (e.g. number of damaged structures or population centers identified as in need).

Team Rubicon CIO/CTO Steve Hunt recently shared the lessons learned from this experience in the latest in an ongoing webinar series around the use of UAVs in emergency response and international development. A longtime partner of Direct Relief, Team Rubicon (TR) is a group of US military veterans, first responders and civilians with special skills focused on humanitarian disaster relief. They work in three areas – readiness, response and recovery – and have 28,000 members to date.

In Nepal, TR engaged in a range of assessment activities in partnership with the local government, NGOs and the UN, including medical aid, search and rescue, damage assessment and recovery. These activities were conducted through a variety of means – from mobile surveys to UAVs and satellite imagery. The imagery was collected and through subsequent analysis the information was produced to drive resources and inform response activities, with the ultimate goal of “decreasing chaos with data and information.”

What Hunt and team discovered was the need for more frequent liaison and coordination with the local government to better understand cultural norms and needs. Hunt also emphasized the need to support the overextended capacity of the government for assessing short and long term needs to meet the vast, immediate challenges faced. Direct communication with the host nation and sensitivity around intercultural relations in the application of UAV technology were two recurring themes, as was the importance of a clearly defined process to guide the application of technology. TR has been working on the processes that extend well beyond the application of UAVs for years. UAVs are considered a powerful vignette in the story of a greater damage assessment framework used to inform TR and partner organization activities.

“It’s a fascinating challenge to marry these resources to a culturally sensitive application that aids communities in need,” said Hunt. “…We need to make sure our processes and use cases are driving the technology, and not the other way around.”

Hunt outlined three main actions to resolve the challenges faced:

  1. the formation of a team to liaise directly with the local government to help understand and articulate needs, norms and priorities;
  2. the collection of wide area assessment data to quantify the scope of these needs (whether by windshield, aircraft or space vehicle); and
  3. the provision of prioritized, quantified needs information to resource providers to ensure effectiveness.

UAV technology is evolving quickly, and TR is continually refining its processes based on needs and resources. The major components of this process are imagery/data collection, information production/organization on a situational awareness platform, and operational planning and operational decision-making stages (informed by the collected data and the resulting, organized information).

Going forward, TR will continue to support present and future operational needs; refine operational technology architectures, use cases and processes; and work with partners and operations teams to identify, test and integrate technologies that fit mission area needs. The team is currently in the planning stage of conducting follow-on relief work in Nepal.  

“The industry and the technology are evolving so quickly. It’s not just the flying platform, it’s the camera itself. It’s going to take a while for things to stabilize in such a way that we can just outline the best platforms to provide the information that we need,” said Hunt.

Until then, organizations like TR are tasked with continuing to strategically evaluate and match the emergency with best-suited technologies.

 “If we strip away all the politics, [UAVs] are an incredible asset for performing wide area assessments,” he said. “If you want to get an early look over a broad area to drive resources, I think UAVs are incredibly powerful tools – providing high-resolution information over a broad area in a relatively short period of time. We cannot overemphasize the importance for the publication of use cases to identify and drive the evolution and application of these evolving technologies into an effective set of capabilities for humanitarian community.”

For more information on Team Rubicon, visit

The NetHope UAV Working Group is beginning to spearhead practical activities to help organizations learn from what’s happening in the field, and recently held its first training activity in Belgium to support organizations implement and improve UAV projects. Click here to read Andrew Schroeder’s blog recount. A similar training will be held in the fall at the NetHope Global Member Summit in Copenhagen. If you haven’t already joined the NetHope UAV Working Group, sign up here. Note: you do not need to be a part of a NetHope member organization to participate in this group.

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