Technology and Innovation at the core of Disaster Management

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Several factors such as the location and geographic characteristics serve as catalysts for a number of natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, fire, droughts, landslides, earthquakes, and avalanches. According to UNICEF, 17,671 Indian children lost their lives during natural disasters from 2000-2016 and around 330 million people were affected by droughts in 2015-2016. To contextualise this, one needs to step back and understand what really constitutes a disaster.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) defines a disaster as: “A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, or environmental losses and impacts which exceeds the ability of the affected community to cope using only its own resources.”

Few key aspects of this definition deserve to be highlighted. First, there is the emphasis given on the word “a serious disruption” which translates to an event that causes significant disturbance to the normal situation. Second, the impact of such an abnormal event is characterised by one which “exceeds the ability” of the affected community in terms of their coping capacity. Lastly, it is worthy to note the relationship of the disaster with the affected “community”. A community is a group of people sharing a common purpose or values with mutually beneficial outcomes and a sense of belonging. These are essential building blocks constituting a disaster that can damage property, destruct critical assets, and project immense social, environmental, and economic disruption.

According to UNICEF, 27 of 29 states and seven union territories of India are exposed to recurrent natural hazards. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was conceptualised to make India disaster resilient on all fronts by indulging in sustainable and inclusive disaster risk reduction. The vision of NDMA states that it can perform the above “by building local capacities starting with the poor and decreasing significantly the loss of lives, livelihoods, and assets in different forms including economic, physical, social, cultural, and environmental while enhancing the ability to cope with disasters at all levels.”

Advancements in technology and innovation at the core of disaster response can not only improve the efficiency of such a disaster response system but also enhance the coping capacity of people, organisations, and institutions to manage disasters in the first place.

Disruptive technologies have various applications in disaster management ranging from spreading critical information and developing early warning systems to prevent a crisis, understanding the causes of disasters, and assessing the social and economic impacts post the crisis. Technology can be inserted in essentially all components of the disaster management process.

Following are the components of a robust Technology-Driven Disaster Management Lifecycle:

  1. Risk Identification and Assessment: Use AI/ML and Big Data to perform crisis analytics by leveraging geographical data and historic events to assess the likelihood of an event and manage key crisis indicators; predictive analytics is used for analysing economic and societal impact.
  2. Enhance Preparedness: IoT is the integration of sensor data with a range of other information for a multi-faceted understanding of and response to disasters. Some applications can collect, analyse, and visualize information from weather satellites on the path of a cyclone, as well as insights from social media on the preparations and impact of the cyclone on communities. For instance, the IBM weather forecasting software uses the data and can predict emergencies up to two days in advance. Smart textiles can augment field capabilities by enhancing the mobility and operational feasibility of a disaster responder.
  3. Disaster Response: AI is used for retrospective image recognition of satellite data to identify damaged infrastructure. Multiple data streams can be combined to generate heat maps and hotspots of vulnerability. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be used for high-resolution terrain mapping, assessing damage in real-time, increasing situational awareness and operational flexibility in terms of delivering equipment, medicine, and emergency aid in a faster and more efficient way. These drones can be termed as “digital responders” that are able to provide insight into otherwise unreachable areas. These UAVs mounted with infrared cameras and sensors can prove real-time live monitoring, enhance night-time visibility, and expedite survival-based critical rescue efforts.
  4. Rebuild: Initiate crisis communication protocols using wireless satellite-based communication equipment to disseminate disaster management information to internal and external stakeholders.

In India, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) has played an instrumental role in rescuing over 1.44 lakh precious lives and evacuating around 7 lakh stranded individuals from disaster situations within the nation and abroad.

The AGNIi Mission has partnered with NDRF which is globally acclaimed to be the world’s single largest force dedicated to disaster response. The shared vision of innovation and technology at the core of disaster risk reduction is aimed to position NDRF as the world-class leader in disaster preparedness and disaster resiliency.

Additionally, the AGNIi Mission is pleased to note the hon’ble NDRF DG’s larger vision in technologically advancing the NDRF and facilitating upgradation via Indian emerging innovation. In this regard, AGNIi organised a virtual “Technology Showcase” for NDRF on 10th January 2022, which was attended by the rank and file of the force including field formations led by the new Director-General. A finely curated portfolio of 15 key technologies was showcased and demonstrated by various innovators from across the nation. Technologies showcased were in the realm of:

  • Situational Awareness including drone-based aerial mapping and advanced image analytics,
  • Field Capabilities in maritime technologies including intelligent UMSVs and underwater surveillance and inspection vehicle for search and rescue
  • Technical Textiles with nanotechnology for rescue workers
  • Self-powered and adaptive Exoskeletons increasing operational flexibility of first responders
  • Secure and wireless satellite-based Communication equipment
  • AR/VR based training simulators for enhancing disaster preparedness of response workers

The most promising innovations will be field trialled at different locations across the country including Benaras and Cuttack where major NDRF field formations are based.

In pursuance of this long-standing partnership, AGNIi intends to drive creating a National Disaster Capability Grid - a first of its kind in the country making it an exemplar for a global showcase. This project is aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations. Out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the UN, 4 of them (Goals 1, 2, 11 and 13) refer to the need of nations and communities to address the challenges related to natural hazards and disasters. The National Disaster Capability Grid will serve as a single portal interlinking industry professional, state disaster response force and NDRF together with superior technology capability to address disaster response. This AGNIi-NDRF partnership is intended to project the latter as a technology -savvy force which is also in line with the vision of the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s thrust for SMART Policing.

It is certain that key resources that people need in a disaster – such as food, water and shelter cannot be replaced by technology. However, technology has the power to transform and upgrade the efficacy of disaster response efforts that benefit people in a myriad of ways. Such a technology-based intervention can spur an evolving approach to disaster risk reduction which can systematically reduce socio-economic vulnerabilities and help develop institutional resilience for when the next disaster strikes.

This has been authored by Manali Amitav.