Digital Regulation Platform

Response phase: communication restoration


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

In circumstances where mobile base stations or the satellite network are not available after a disaster strikes, some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be useful as they can relay traffic widely and observe sites from above. UAVs vary greatly in size, capacity, control technique, flying capability, and flight altitude (between 200 metres and 20 kilometres). Those operating at 20 kilometre altitudes can provide communications over areas 40 kilometres in radius. For communications that mend breaks in existing communications networks, solutions like tethered kites, tethered balloons (Shu 2017), solar powered gliders, and solar powered balloons (Etherington 2019) are currently being suggested.

In particular, solar powered balloons have already been used to provide telecommunications in emergencies: in 2017, when Hurricane Maria destroyed 34 per cent of the GDP of Puerto Rico, balloons for communications were deployed. This required establishing connections with the local operator, obtaining frequencies (from eight companies), and getting the balloons to Puerto Rico. All of this preparation and coordination took four weeks (Li 2019).

Mesh relay networks using Wi-Fi have also been suggested for connections between disaster sites and emergency control centres. The nodes would be attached to drones (or, of course, to buildings that were still standing) (Panda and others 2019). However, the use of drones equipped as LTE network nodes might be preferable, if frequencies are available for the purpose.

Telecom/ICTs for damage assessment

After a disaster strikes, data about its impact on people and assets must be collected, disseminated and processed. Existing sensing equipment might still be able to operate and communicate useful readings. Aerial survey planes, satellites, and high-altitude UAVs can give broad pictures; drones, which are low-altitude UAVs, can provide further detail when equipped with lights and cameras.

Drones have several other potential uses in disaster management; for instance, they are being trialled in Kenya, along with smartphones and satellites, for locust infestation hazard monitoring (FAO 2020); in Sendai City, Japan, as LTE network nodes for early warning (Nolia 2019); and in the Philippines, as LTE network nodes for search and rescue activities (Nokia 2018).

Though UAVs are being deployed after natural disasters, other unmanned vehicles have not yet become commonplace. An example of their use is that of Italy, where, in 2016 an earthquake destroyed the town of Amatrice. After the survivors had been rescued from the rubble, two unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and three drones were deployed. The aim was to provide 3D textured models of two churches, which, following their partial collapse, needed to be shored up to prevent further destruction.

Infection Assessment in Haiti

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, mobile phone records and cholera case data over three months were used to estimate the “infectious pressure” for 78 areas of the country’s territory. The estimates assumed that the number of infectious people was proportional to the number of cases reported during the previous seven days (which was approximately the incubation time of cholera), and that the mobile phone movements between areas were representative of the movements of infectious people. In each area, the infectious pressure was related strongly to the risk of an outbreak within seven days (and more strongly than to “gravity” models fitted to the cholera case data), and the infectious pressure at the start of an outbreak was correlated significantly with the cholera case data over the first ten days of the outbreak (Bengtsson and others 2015).

Nonetheless, unless suitable statistical adjustments can be made, the use of mobile phone call detail records can have the following limitations: the data might not be representative, as mobile phone ownership is likely to be biased away from women, the poor, young and older people, and people in rural or remote areas. Also, the data does not provide a one-to-one correlation between people and phones, as people might use more than one phone each, and several people might use the same phone. Also, the data can be deficient when phones are not used enough for services other than over-the-top (OTT) services, working base stations are far apart, finding power to recharge phones is difficult or signal strength is variable.

Search and rescue

Robots have not yet been greatly applied in searches after natural disasters, because combining the motor and sensory skills required in searches, let alone rescues, has proven difficult. Nonetheless, some uses have been recorded: In the states of Puebla and Morelos (as well as Mexico City) after the 2017 earthquake, a snake-like robot was deployed. Following the selection of areas where survivors might remain under the rubble, the robot was taken to a collapsed building, and provided images from two explorations through the building but did not find any survivors. Another example is that of Tōhoku where, after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, many robots were developed and deployed in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Remote-controlled machines that flew, swam, walked, or crawled through the wreckage were used to map radiation levels, gather images and break up radioactive materials.

Information sharing using national emergency phone numbers

National emergency phone numbers could be used for requests for help. There might, however, also be numbers for phone calls or SMS messages, or web pages for social media posts. People using them would be expected to state the reasons and places of use, so that the emergency operation centres could act suitably. There might be two uses: to request help (for people who are facing danger or are injured) and to request information (for people who are anxious to connect with friends or relatives). In Haiti, for example, the SMS number 4636 had mainly the first of these uses, with local and remote volunteers translating messages for relief workers (Munro 2013).

A message board scheme for connecting with friends or relatives, also, is provided in Japan by at least six operators. Disaster Emergency Message Dial 171 provides voice mail boxes that allows messages in voice format to be stored and retrieved. Similarly, Disaster Message Board web171 is a website that allows messages in voice, text, or image format to be stored and retrieved. People in a disaster-stricken area store the messages (and optionally protect them with passwords) using their phone numbers as keys; others retrieve them using the same phone numbers as keys and entering any necessary passwords (ITU 2013). Every year there is a dedicated day when people are urged to practise using the services. Otherwise the services are activated only during a disaster, when, by conveying messages that confirm safety, they decrease the number of call attempts made on networks.

Responder coordination

Telecom/ICT tools might be useful to improve coordination between the different stakeholders during the response phase of the disaster management process. For instance, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) issues disaster alerts to some 25 000 subscribers immediately after disasters, with automatic estimates and risk analysis provided by the European Commission Joint Research Centre. GDACS has a virtual On-Site Operation and Co-ordination Centre (OSOCC) for information exchange by email and SMS messages between 19 000 subscribers. GDACS also provides maps and satellite imagery from various providers, including the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) and MapAction, and lists of mapping activities during emergencies (GDACS 2014).

Along with the above, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) offers many of these tools. In particular, ReliefWeb facilitates funding appeals and the tracking of responses to funding requirements, with the aid of reference materials covering global humanitarian policies and problems and “communities of practice” and listings of job opportunities and training opportunities. Other tools from OCHA associated with ReliefWeb are intended for coordinating responses by sharing operational information, reporting situations, contacting responders, and checking the profiles, locations and skills of available responders. OCHA also manages the virtual OSOCC for GDACS.

Sahana, as well, is a useful response tool consisting of a free open-source software for disaster management. It enhances coordination and collaboration between organisations in the aftermath of disasters by promoting integrated information gathering and communication. It provides for data entry and display for organisation staff, activities and locations, situation assessments, asset inventories, and maps. In Haiti in 2010, for example, the deployment handled nearly seven hundred organisations that were assisting the affected population. Deployments of this software before Haiti included Sri Lanka (for the Indian Ocean tsunami), Pakistan, the Philippines, and China (Sahana 2014).


Bengtsson, L., J. Gaudart, X. Lu, S. Moore, E. Wetter, K. Salla, S. Rebaudet, and R. Piarroux. 2015. “Using Mobile Phone Data to Predict the Spatial Spread of Cholera.” Scientific Reports 5 (8923).

Etherington, D. 2019. “Alphabet’s Loon signs deal with Telefonica to provide internet to remote parts of the Amazon.” TechCrunch, November 21, 2019.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2020. “In East Africa: A Race to Outsmart Locusts with Drones and Data.” FAO News, April 14, 2020.

GDACS (Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System). 2014. Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System Guidelines.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2013. Technical Report on Telecommunications and Disaster Mitigation. ITU-T. FG-DR&NRR.

Li, A. 2019. “Loon Deploys LTE Balloons to Peru 48 Hours After Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake. 9TO5Google, May 29, 2019.

Munro, R. 2013. “Crowdsourcing and the Crisis-Affected Community: Lessons Learned and Looking Forward from Mission 4636.” Information Retrieval 16 (2): 91-100.012.

Nokia. 2018. “Philippine Red Cross to Employ Nokia Drone Networks Solution to Aid Disaster Response.” New Release, November 27, 2018.

Nokia. 2019. “Nokia Joins Sendai City in World’s First Test of Private Wireless Connected Drones for Tsunami Evacuation Alerts.” News Release, November 12, 2019.

Panda, K.G., S. Das, D. Sen, and W. Arif. 2019. “Design and Deployment of UAV-Aided Post-Disaster Emergency Network.” IEEE Access 7 (2019): 102985-102999.

Sahana. 2014. Sahana Eden Open Source Disaster Management Software Platform. Sahana Foundation.

Shu, C. 2017. “Aerostat Startup Altaeros Gets $7.5M from SoftBank to Bring Broadband Wireless to Rural Areas.” TechCrunch, August 8, 2017.

Last updated on: 19.01.2022
Share this article to: