Aiding Beirut’s Disaster Recovery Using Drones

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Aiding Beirut’s Disaster Recovery Using Drones

One year ago, on August 4, 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut, Lebanon's capital, exploded, killing at least 218 people, injuring 7,500, displacing an estimated 300,000 people. The blast that was felt all the way in Cyprus 300 kilometers away shook the capital and caused widespread destruction of property. The explosion flipped cars and stripped the cladding off steel-framed buildings. The blast damaged homes up to ten kilometers away. The rampant damage was hard to fathom, much less- map accurately. Still, surveying the affected regions is a necessity that would facilitate relief and restoration projects.

To help with the restoration of affected regions, FEDS- Drone Powered Solutions partnered with Geospatial Minds and traveled to Lebanon to map the city. In this article we’ll explore the role played by Drones and GIS in Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.

GIS and Disaster Mitigation

GIS data and tools have tremendous potential to save lives, limit damage, and reduce the cost of dealing with disasters. Gathering precise and accurate data can be challenging, especially in the wake of a calamity. The significance of GIS in disaster management was realized in August 1992 when Hurricane Andrew swept through southern Florida.

The hurricane left a trail of destruction throughout the region. GIS was first used to map damage and analyze community demographics. Later, as the potential of GIS became more apparent, its application expanded into areas such as public assistance and disaster mitigation. Now GIS is involved in every stage of Disaster Planning.


Mitigation strategies help reduce the impact of disasters by safeguarding human lives and reducing property damage. Using GIS, you can find optimal locations for emergency headquarters like police stations, fire stations, and hospitals. Essentially, what you get is a Dynamic Risk Map program that provides accurate data to stakeholders and partners.


Geography information systems (GIS) and remote sensing are key components of the pre-disaster strategy. The ability to determine high-risk areas and be prepared in advance is critical. GIS enables a more efficient and effective response to emergencies. You also have access to a geospatial database for populations, businesses, structures and schools which can be consulted in case of an emergency.


Even if you're prepared for every scenario, determining the exact scale of damage caused by a disaster is never a sure thing. As a result, post-disaster response models heavily rely on accurate and real-time data. GIS is also required to visualize the most efficient pick-up and evacuation routes for survivors.

Disaster Recovery

Once the immediate emergency is dealt with, all that remains is to restore a state of normalcy to the affected regions. GIS plays a crucial role in disaster recovery as well-it provides a comprehensive overview of the affected areas- and long-term goals can be tackled systematically.

All disasters have a spatial component to them- Successful response starts with a map. GIS enables you to plan, analyze and take action across all stages of disaster mitigation. To the survivors, it is a vital line of communication through which they can seek safety. You can find instances of maps being used to deliver critical information to those affected, like electricity outage maps after Hurricane Sandy. GIS integrates multiple layers of information and displays them in an easy-to-digest format.

How Drones Help in Disaster Mitigation and Recovery

When disaster strikes, commercial drones can help solve problems humans on foot or in vehicles just can't reach. For example, in 2016, wildfires in Fort McMurray forced 88,000 people to evacuate their homes. At first, aerial mapping services were used to identify which areas were damaged so emergency responders could prioritize their efforts. But these maps only covered small parts of town and took many hours to produce.

As we established, Geospatial data is a critical component of any disaster recovery plan. Understanding the geographical impact of an event helps aid organizations prioritize and implement disaster response efforts. However, it's too dangerous to send humans to survey an area in many instances or is simply too expensive or time-intensive for other methods like GPS or satellite. Luckily, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can help collect geospatial data that would be impossible or too risky to obtain by sending humans into affected areas.

Drones happen to be faster, safer, and more accurate- these three attributes are precious following a disaster.


It's vital to get an effective map up and running so rescue and recovery operations can commence as soon as possible. If it isn't safe enough for humans or even manned flight/chopper missions, drone operators can fly in and survey areas quickly and effectively.


Because they can travel into unsafe areas for humans to enter, drones provide survey data and images of disaster sites that can assist in planning recovery efforts. Additionally, using different sensors like IR or Thermal can provide greater visibility into critical situations. Drones in disaster response are still relatively new, but they could soon become standard practice.


Professional survey grade drones come built-in with tools and features that provide increased accuracy like PPK and RTK. This means that you obtain accurate georeferenced, enabling you to plan and rescue or restore with pinpoint accuracy. In addition, using photogrammetry, you can create 3D reality captures or orthomosaic maps, which help you assess structural damage and guide subsequent missions.

Disasters can be devastating. Add in time lost to rebuilding, and it can take years before a community is back on its feet. But drones are becoming more widely used every day— helping us do things faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than ever before.

Mapping Beirut’s Port Tragedy Affected Area

Nikin Mohan James, FEDS’s operations manager and Rabih Bou Rached- a native of Lebanon, and FEDS’s founder and CEO would get an opportunity to help nearly two months after the disaster. This data would help digitize the affected region and enable in-depth analysis of the damage sustained from multiple angles- making it critical for restoration missions.

It was an incredibly poignant experience to see the devastation suffered. The first task would be to identify the affected area that required mapping. They determined a 6 sqkm area that required surveying and mapping. The next challenge would be to find the ideal ground station setup to enable them to launch the drone safely and efficiently.

Finding a suitable drone take-off and landing location would be a real challenge. The site is a densely populated area littered with high-rise buildings, making a routine drone take-off and landing much more complicated and hazardous.

By choosing the right drone platform, we were able to mitigate some of the dangers and challenges. senseFly's eBee X would fulfill the criteria of speed and accuracy, while its lightweight nature would remove some of the danger. Additionally, the eBeeX's steep landing and take-off technology would help in an urban setting. The FEDS Team determined that launching from ground level in the middle of a city would be incredibly challenging and found a suitable elevated area. The team found a suitable site- the helipad of Saint George Hospital University Medical Center. Located at the heart of the city and 45m from the ground, the helipad would enable the team to map the area effectively.

With the location and platform set, the team proceeded with their mission. Taking just six flights, the team mapped the entire 6 sqkm area within four hours, taking about 4,000 images. Our partners GeoSpatial Minds then processed this data using Pix4Dcloud- you can read about the data processing aspect in their article here. Traditionally, if you needed to capture this data, you would have to fly a manned airplane or helicopter mission combined with a manual sweep of the city on foot. This requires a lot of resources, equipment and would ultimately be incredibly time intensive.

Using drones for survey and mapping project, you get faster results while being safer and more accurate. Providing access to quick and accurate data can make a huge difference in a city's disaster recovery and mitigation efforts.


About the author

Niiveth Mani


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