The use of drone technology in flood emergency response

We spoke to Dr Monica Rivas Casado at Cranfield University about the use of drone technology in flood emergency response. Here, Monica discusses their research into the feasibility of using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to improve mapping of the extent of flooding events. The beginning of this project coincided with the UK winter storms of 2015 which severely impacted Cumbria.

Why was this research commissioned?

Currently, there is a gap in knowledge within the context of flood emergency response that needs to be addressed. In brief, some of the techniques currently used to gather information during and after flood events do not provide all the data required. Flood emergency responders require relatively detailed information on the extent of the flooding and location of properties affected within less than 24 hours. Current methods used to gather data include satellite imagery and aircrafts, which may not provide the required data when there is low cloud cover for example. In the case of SAR (synthetic-aperture radar) satellite imagery (which is able to penetrate the clouds), it is quite difficult to distinguish between water and concrete signatures (i.e. pavement vs. water). We proposed the use of drones to overcome some of these limitations and they turned out to be useful.

What did you hope to achieve through the project?

We wanted to assess the potential of drones to provide information during and after flood events, and in particular how the information could help (i) loss adjusters and (ii) with the uptake of resilience and resistance measures. We collected drone imagery in Cockermouth (Cumbria) after storm Desmond (December 2015), mapping approximately 150 ha. The results showed that we could use the data for both loss adjustment and the identification of areas in need of flood resilience and resistance measures.

Please can you highlight some of the benefits of using drones for flood management, that came out of the project?

Community: Drones enabled us to identify which properties were flooded and which ones were not, therefore helping us to establish which parts of the community required more attention during and after an event occurred. It also helped us to identify which parts of the community were affected by which types of flooding (e.g. fluvial, pluvial), which in turn informed flood management decisions.

Emergency responders: The imagery collected provided detailed information about the extent and impact of the flood event. It helped detect which areas had been badly affected and therefore needed more resources during/after flooding. There is potential that it could help with planning evacuation routes but we have not yet tested that to the full extent.

Insurance: The images collected enabled the identification of individual properties affected by flooding and, to some degree, the level of damaged caused. This could help insurance companies identify the damaged caused without the need to send loss adjusters on site. If loss adjusters were to be required, the exact properties that they should visit could be provided based on observations from the imagery.

What are some of the general limitations around deployment of drones? How did this impact the project?

Key limitations at the moment are (i) operational, (ii) regulatory and (ii) time processing. We find operational restrictions when trying to fly drones in gusty (stormy) conditions. Drones are not waterproof in general and they cannot fly when it is really windy. This makes operational deployment really complicated during a flood event as we need to find a suitable weather window to start our work. There are also regulatory constraints established by the Civil Aviation Authority. Finally, we are trying to get the drone data collected and analysed within less than 24 hours so that it is useful for emergency responders. At the moment, it takes longer than this to generate the first results so we are now exploring the use of machine learning techniques to be able to obtain the outcomes that we need on time.

We experienced all these limitations when undertaking the project but managed to overcome most of them through good planning and carefully thinking about the logistics of the mission. For example, we overcame the regulatory limitations through close liaison the CAA and on-site emergency responders.

What was the impact of the research at the time?

We managed to collect a very comprehensive data set of the area and demonstrated that the data collected could be useful for flood management. There had been flights undertaken in the past with drones over flooded environments but, as far as we know, the data sets collected were not as comprehensive as the one we captured. We understand results from the project have been used by governmental agencies to make informed management decisions.

How do you see drone technology developing on a wider scale, both nationally and internationally?

I believe drone technology will be adopted across the country as an additional tool to inform the extent and impact of flood events. Their use has already been adopted by the Environment Agency across England and is expected to increase in the future. The potential of the technology is still yet to be fully explored, but initial results show promising applications at a national and international level. For example, we are currently assessing their potential for flood emergency response in India where flood events affected large parts of Kerala in the summer of 2018. 

What future related projects does Cranfield University have in the pipeline?

We have multiple on-going projects on the use of drones for flood emergency response and the uptake of resilience and resistance measures, the details of which are published here. We are assessing their potential for the real-time planning of flood evacuation routes and looking into the use of machine learning to speed up the processing time. Aside from the use of drones but still within the context of flooding, we are working on (i) how best to communicate flood risk to different community groups and (ii) determining who would be best placed to communicate this message. This will be published in due course.

Finally, what was your personal highlight of the project?

A highlight for me was around the logistics of deploying the drones after a flood event. It required liaison with the CAA, Army, drone pilots and emergency responders on site, and helped me understand how emergency responders operate during and after a flood event from an in-field perspective.

Bio: Dr Monica Rivas Casado is a Senior Lecturer in Integrated Environmental Monitoring with expertise in the application of statistics to environmental data. Monica has an MSc in Environmental Water Management and a PhD in applied geostatistics from Cranfield. Monica is currently leading Research Council (RCUK) and industry funded projects on the use of emerging technologies and statistical science for robust environmental monitoring, which includes the use of drones for flood and catastrophe extent mapping and damage assessment (NERC/EPSRC). Monica is a fully qualified RPQs (drone) pilot.

Click here to read the case-study on the Cranfield University website. For more information on the project, please email

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