Kelly McSweeney

Jun 6th 2022

Disaster Relief Technology Borrowed From Aerospace


When people are trapped under debris without access to fresh air or water, timing is crucial. In disaster scenarios such as earthquakes, floods and terrorist attacks or local infrastructure collapses, survivors and rescue workers contend with precarious scenes, often without the help of communications networks. Disaster relief technology can find survivors just in time.

When hazards such as tsunamis and wildfires get out of control, they become disasters that can turn an otherwise peaceful location into something like a war zone. While military leaders use advanced technology for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the same technology can be applied to disaster aid.

A Bird’s-Eye View

Autonomous aircraft can fly above disaster zones to collect images and data that rescue teams can use to decide how to proceed.

Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, for example, provides views of disaster zones without putting people at unnecessary risk. This autonomous aircraft system is designed to fly at high altitudes for long hours without a pilot. In the defense industry, Global Hawk provides military field commanders with real-time ISR over large swaths of land, gathering high-resolution imagery via infrared cameras that can “see” through clouds and bad weather, day and night. In addition to intelligence, Global Hawk fleets have also supported air and ground users with communications relay support. Similarly, the same aircraft can be utilized as a disaster relief technology.

After a devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Global Hawk surveilled damaged airports to find safe landing sites for relief aircraft. Rescue workers also used videos from Global Hawk observations to compare before and after images of the area to identify areas of need and plan clear routes to get to those locations.

A year later, U.S. Air Force Global Hawks helped survey damage and perform relief missions during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, notably, providing views of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant without risking human crews’ potential radiation exposure.

Additionally, a new aircraft called Firebird can provide similar assistance. It’s a medium-altitude aircraft that’s designed to be inexpensive and uniquely flexible. Pilots can fly this aircraft and then quickly transform it into an un-piloted aircraft, for example, in order to stay in the air longer and to go near dangerous areas to gather information.

A Heartbeat Away

While aircraft and satellite images such as NOAA’s Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System provide overhead views, smaller drones like the popular recreational consumer drones can be used to get a closer look at the situation. Land robots, too, can get more detailed information without putting humans at risk.

Some disaster relief technology isn’t nearly as flashy as a robot but can be extremely effective. When a severe earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, a suitcase-sized device saved four men. The device, called FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, operates using a similar approach that NASA uses to observe distant planets. It sends a signal out and then deduces information about the unknown object based on how the signal changes when it bounces back. In this way, the technology identifies subtle distortions that humans can’t detect, such as the bending of a signal when it encounters a galactic object. Similarly, FINDER sent a microwave signal that detected survivors’ heartbeats in Nepal, even though the men were buried under about 10 feet of brick, mud, wood and other debris.

Enhancing the Humanitarian Disaster Aid Toolkit

Rescue aid workers continue to use traditional tools such as listening devices, cameras and dogs that are trained to sniff out survivors. And over time, they’re also adding new disaster relief technology to their toolkits. With each new technological improvement, lives are saved.

Are you interested in all things related to technology? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.