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ASU scientists say drones could play major role in tornado disaster rescue efforts

Posted at 4:26 PM, Dec 14, 2021

TEMPE, AZ — Already in action, teams of first responders are scouring the rubble of five devastating tornadoes, looking for survivors.

“We don’t really know by any stretch of the imagination of all the infrastructure damage,” said Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett. “We actually have one of the, arguably the longest tornado tracks on the ground in recorded history.”

With so much damage, the start of their search and rescue efforts can mean the difference between life and death.

“Conventionally, we use random search, or boot force search and we search from first block to last block, which is not very efficient,” said ASU researcher Zhiang Chen.

Chen is rethinking that method. Instead, using drones and artificial intelligence to speed it up.

RELATED: Ways you can help Kentucky rescue efforts

“This is from aerial imagery on the UAV, then we reconstruct the site, we build a 3-D model, and then we use machine learning to estimate the tornado damages,” said Chen showing how their method works.

Essentially, drones would launch over the damaged areas, programmed to collect data and eventually transform it into heat maps that can differentiate the severity of the damage from one area to another.

“For example, this one is pretty severe damage,” said Chen, pointing to a destroyed structure colored red as part of the program. Other areas that have gone untouched or sustained less damage are identified with a different color.

Depending on the severity, the program color codes each structure on a scale of EF0 to EF3. The larger heat map created from that data can steer first responders to the hardest hit areas.

Using the drone also provides access to areas that can be difficult to reach on the ground.

“If we can use that information to guide search and rescue then we can probably first search the exact spot that has more severe damage, maybe under that structure there is someone waiting for us,” said Chen.

He says they envision swarms of drones covering more area faster as they work in tandem to document the damage, all while simultaneously sending that information to rescuers to plan out their routes.

Chen adds the program will also assist in damage assessment, allowing insurance companies to rebuild quicker.