DJI and UNDP use latest drone technology to protect vulnerable communities

Drones empower communities in the Maldives to better prepare for and respond to disasters

The Maldives, one of the most fragile and dispersed nations on earth, faces unique threats from rising sea levels and coastal storms. Now DJI and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working together to empower the Maldives with the latest drone technology, allowing local communities to prepare for natural disasters independently and respond to them immediately.

At least 20 islands in the Maldives will be equipped with DJI Phantom or DJI Mavic Pro drones, and local emergency officials will receive training from professional first responders in how to integrate drones into their disaster preparedness and response setups.

By mapping their islands precisely, they can better understand how erosion has changed their physical environment and then plan where to build seawalls or designate evacuation routes. In the aftermath of a disaster, they can quickly assess the damage and assist in appropriate search and rescue operations.

Proactive Communities

The Maldives government relies heavily on proactive community teams for its national emergency response strategy. Consequently, it has been a driving force for drone integration for those plans. UNDP officials are hopeful that this project can be a model for resilience and protection in other disaster-prone regions.

“The Maldives was chosen as the first country for the project as it is one of UNDP’s highest priorities for its climate risk reduction and adaption programme,” says Sanny Jegillos, Senior Advisor Disaster Risk Reduction at UNDP.

“The country is highly vulnerable and we need to look for smart and cost-effective solutions to build resilience and adapt to change.”

The Maldives is a group of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean. Currently, it has an average elevation of just 1.5 meters above sea level. It is also one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries with over 200 inhabited islands spread over 90.000 square kilometers. This makes communication and transportation a serious logistical challenge even in ideal weather conditions.

Safer Operations

Caroline Briggert, Head of Stakeholder Relations at DJI, says that professional first responders have already shown how drone technology has made firefighting, relief missions and search-and-rescue operations safer and more efficient around the world.

“This project brings the same technology directly to the people facing the greatest risk of natural disasters,” she says.

“It gives them access to more and better information so that they can better respond to crises and plan their futures.”

Without a doubt, information captured by drones helps the Maldives prepare for extreme weather intensified by ongoing climate change. Now there is no need to rely on data gathered by satellites or helicopters, stored in closed, central databases. By creating their own maps and comparing images over time, community emergency response teams can monitor coastal erosion, sea surges, coral bleaching and flood levels to better understand how their local environment is changing. Local leaders use this data to make smarter decisions about planning evacuation routes, building seawalls, and preparing other critical infrastructure. Furthermore, tracking how islands are changing over time helps researchers validate and refine climate change models.

Training the Maldives National Defence Force

At a national level, UNDP and DJI have been training the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) — a government agency responsible for disaster response — on how to integrate drones into operations involving firefighters, coast guards and other public safety forces. The aerial perspective drones offer can help local groups assess the impact of disasters and assist with immediate search-and-rescue operations, all while working on and planning relief missions before national forces arrive.

Firefighters in the capital city of Male – one of the most congested cities in the world – have already incorportated drones into their workflows to better understand the characteristics of a fire from above. Firefighters can use a drone’s real-time view to assess how a fire spreads and then evaluate the risk, coordinating a better fire extinguishing plan. The Male coast guard also use drones and have been successful in reducing water rescue times, using thermal cameras to help find missing persons in the day or at night.

“Having professional emergency response teams working closely with community teams is an efficient way of transferring knowledge,” says Umar Fikry, Senior Programme Officer at the Maldives National Disaster Management Centre.

“By using innovative technology such as drones, people in the Maldives come together and prepare for future extreme weather scenarios.”