Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly known as drones, have captured the public’s interest in recent years.

These lightweight aircraft are increasingly used by the military and law enforcement to carry out operations that in the past would not have been possible without an airplane or helicopter and without risks to human life.

Drones can also assist in emergency management, says Dr. Daniel Martin, an emergency management consultant at Integrated Solutions Consulting and Capella University faculty member in the School of Public Service Leadership. “We use a lot of technology in emergency management, and there are several ways that drones can be applied to our work,” Dr. Martin says.

In his courses, Dr. Martin encourages his students to think of ways that drones can be applied to disaster planning, response, and rebuilding. Among the potential uses are:


  • Delivering supplies. In the wake of a disaster, drones can be used to deliver food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities to hard-to-reach areas. They can also be equipped with WiFi technology and used to create temporary communication networks.


  • Finding survivors. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, families stranded in remote flooded homes were found by a recreational drone pilot.  The pilot was able to contact local authorities who diverted resources from more populated areas to evacuate the victims.  When an earthquake demolishes a village, picking through the rubble in search of survivors is dangerous and time-consuming work. Search and rescue operations can be more efficient using drones equipped with thermo-imaging cameras and microphones.


  • Identifying risks. To anticipate potential disasters, drones can be used for mapping floodplains in coastal or riverine areas or identifying unstable soils that could become mudslides in mountainous regions. Paired with digital tools, drones can be used to create four dimensional maps, giving a perspective that cannot be provided by satellite images.


  • Assessing damages. Currently, preliminary damage assessments are done by helicopter or car, a process which is commonly referred to as a windshield survey.  Drones offer a more affordable way to assess the damages to a neighborhood.


  • Documenting damage. Drones, coupled with new technology and software, also provide value during the recovery phase. Aerial images of washed-out roadways can be used to provide a new perspective of the damages.  “With the proper technology and software, these aerial images can be used to more accurately calculate areas and volumes of the damaged facility and establish cost estimates for repair and restoration”, says Dr. Martin.  “This documentation is very important for federal disaster assistance programs such as the FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.”


  • Filming simulations. To prepare for crises, emergency managers may conduct simulations that mimic the conditions and response situations encountered in a plane crash, chemical spill, or other emergency. “Filming full-scale exercises and mock trainings with a drone allows you to go back and review the situation with players,” Dr. Martin says. “The things you learn help you refine your plan for reacting when an actual crisis occurs.”



Capella offers MS in Emergency Management, Doctor of Emergency Management, and PhD in Emergency Management programs.