A.I.-Enabled Drones are the Future of Disaster Rescue

New unmanned aerial drones can fly into damaged areas, locate survivors and alert first responders.

Pararescue jumpers and combat rescue officers from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base conduct a search and rescue response during Hurricane Katrina-like flood training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kelly Goonan)

When responding to a natural disaster, lives are on the line and every second counts. Emergency rescuers often face the challenges of assessing vast swaths of destruction and chaos with minimal real-time intelligence to guide them.

Searching for survivors in rising floodwaters or the chaotic ruins of an earthquake takes days, as workers must assess which roads and bridges are accessible and attempt to navigate through hazardous, unknown environments.

The Aerospace Corporation aims to give rescue crews intelligent eyes in the sky. A team of engineers and scientists are designing unmanned aerial drones that can fly into damaged areas, visually identify survivors and relay that data back to first responders. Equipped with artificial intelligence programing, these disaster relief drones can help rescuers attain rapid situational awareness and reach areas that traditional response methods can’t.

Watch the drones assist first responders in detecting people and animals in a disaster situation.

“We’ve all seen images from floods of people on their rooftops clutching their animals,” said Alison Kremer, a Senior Engineering Specialist at Aerospace. “AI-enabled drones could penetrate difficult-to-reach disaster zones and tip off rescue personnel.”

A feat of both hardware and software, the system utilizes a deep learning algorithm to detect people and dogs, and could be expanded to identify other objects in the future. This capability could turn needle-in-the-haystack searches into targeted extractions, saving time and lives.

The project is part of Aerospace’s innovation sabbatical program, which gives scientists and engineers the opportunity to spend 40 hours dedicated to solving a problem of their choice.

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.