How Drones Could Save Lives In The Philippines—And Why We Aren't Using Them

It’s unfortunate that the first mainstream use of quadcopter drones has been to develop ways to end lives. Because, in natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, they could be invaluable for saving them.

Nelson Paez, CEO of DreamHammer, has been calling his government contacts about this all week. His software, Ballista, is an open source operating system that is being used to control drones under 126 government contracts, more than any other provider. 

“It’s unbelievable,” he said, about the lack of drones helping out in the Philippines.

At first glance, Paez’s point of view seems surprising. The last time we sent drones to the Philippines, it was to kill Muslim extremists. The name of the operating system is Ballista, for crying out loud. But Paez thinks it’s just an image problem.

“If the only thing you’ve ever seen automobiles do is run people over, you’ll have a lot of apprehension about riding in cars,” he said. “The problem with drone reception is that the military currently only utilizes them for one of their many uses.”

Here’s why Paez is so determined to send rescue drones to the Philippines, and also why it isn’t going to happen. 

How Drones Can Save Lives

According to Paez, there are three major ways that drones could be saving lives in the wake of the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan. What’s more, he says, all of this technology already exists and can be run on the Ballista operating system.

First, surveillance. Not the Big Brother type we usually imagine using drones for, but surveying for human life in remote places. Equipped with a thermal camera, an unmanned drone could detect typhoon survivors from the air. 

Second, communication. One of the biggest problems in a disaster is connecting people to the outside world. The Philippines typhoon, for instance, upended cell phone towers across several islands, making calls impossible. 

“Drones could provide stereo and communication equipment to help people make contact,” said Paez. “Or they could just repeat a message while they fly over people to give them information.”

Third, drones could drop supplies. While unmanned aircrafts are light and can’t carry much, Paez thinks drones could mean the difference between life and death in some cases.

“Helicopters can carry cargo, but even smaller drones can carry MREs [prepared military meals] to help people survive just another 12 hours to the point when they can get help,” he said. 

Paez isn’t alone. This year’s DARPA challenge has been all about programming robotic first responders to help people trapped in places that are harmful to human rescuers. But there’s a reason this won’t happen until 2015 at the earliest.

Why We’re Not Sending In The Drones

In the end, says Paez, it doesn’t matter how many government contacts he calls. The reason we’re not using drones for rescue is because there aren’t any available.

“Right now government drones are no different than any other military equipment,” he said. “They’re not assembled until they’re needed for missions.”

As a result, Paez said, there aren’t just extra drones lying around. And the ones we currently have active are assigned to the military. For this reason, a Federal Aviation Administration plan to legalize commercial drones can’t come quickly enough. 

“If there was a commercial market for drones, they’d be available right now,” he said. “You could just pick up 50 to 100 at Best Buy and put them out there.”

The FAA has promised to allow commercial drones in U.S. airspace by 2015 (they’re already allowed in airspace all over the rest of the world), thus opening up the commercial market to American entrepreneurs and investors. The initial FAA plan, revealed this week, envisions a world where drones are used to fight fires and track weather.

RIght now, DreamHammer’s only client is the government. But Paez hopes that soon, Ballista can pave the way for more peaceful drone operations. 

“Before, we programmed drones with the purpose of targeting terrorists,” he said. “But if drones became as commercially available as mobile devices are, we’d be able to save lives today.”

Photo of Ballista in action courtesy of DreamHammer