‘FLEET OF DRONES’ TO AID DA IN DISASTER MAPPING, ASSESSMENT
DA-FPOPD Chief Christopher Morales (left) and FPOPD Assistant Chief Lorna Belinda Calda (center) join FAO Representative in the Philippines José Luis Fernández (right) during the 2016 launching of the DA and FAO collaborative project on the use of drones in DRRM. (Photo by Jay Directo/FAO)
Timely, reliable, and sufficient information is the key to effective planning and decision making.
With the use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as remotely piloted aircraft or drone, the Department of Agriculture (DA) is expected to take its disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) to a new height.
Engr. Christopher Morales, Chief of the DA Field Programs Operational Planning Division (FPOPD), shared that the Department’s use of drones in DRRM is based on the National Strategic Plan of Action for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in Agriculture and Fisheries. Anchored on the four priority areas of the Sendai Framework for DRR of the United Nations, the DA strategic plan focuses on understanding risks, strengthening disaster risk governance, reducing disaster risk for resilience, and preparing to respond and Build Back Better.
Drone application in DRRM
In 2015, the DA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) collaborated on the application of drone in pre- and post-disaster assessments. Since then, the Department has continued to acquire more drones and hold trainings on the drone operation and mapping technology.
According to Morales, drones make field validation faster and more efficient. He added that the data collected by drones help the DA provide evidence-based decision for disaster response and rehabilitation. A 50-hectare field can be covered by a quadcopter for only 25 minutes. A single engine fixed wing drone can cover 300 hectares in an hour, while a twin engine fixed wing drone can cover 800 hectares in one and a half hour. The twin engine fixed wing drone can also cover areas as far as 15 kilometers from the base points and it can be flown even with strong wind condition. The drone-captured images have high spatial resolution ranging from two centimeters to 10 centimeters.
The DA Central Office now has twin engine fixed wing, single engine fixed wing, and quadcopter UAV units. Out of the 16 regional field offices (RFOs), two DA RFOs have twin engine fixed wing, 10 RFOs have single engine fixed wing, and all the RFOs have quadcopters.
Equipped with sensors and multi-camera systems, the drones used by the DA can capture visible red, green, and blue (RGB) images and near infrared (NIR) images. By combining the visible and NIR light reflected by vegetation, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) images can be generated to determine the crop health in the area. An orthomosaic or stitched images and a digital elevation model can also be generated from drone-captured images for mapping disaster-affected areas and damage report validation.
The DA strategic plan also uses existing systems such as early warning systems and database to understand risk, monitor disasters or calamities, maintain historical database on damages and losses, and provide evidence-based and proactive response.
The DA and FAO have an ongoing collaborative project called the Development of an Enhanced Production and Risk Management in Agriculture (EPRiMA) Integrated Decision Support System that will capitalize on the agencies’ efforts on the use of drones.
The FPOPD will have a web-based decision support tool for DRRM that will integrate various datasets from drones, satellite images, weather forecasts, dynamic cropping calendars, and drought monitoring based on the Agricultural Stress Index System or ASIS.
FPOPD Assistant Chief Lorna Belinda Calda said, “We closely coordinate with the Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (DOST – PAGASA), DOST- Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) and other warning agencies for localized weather forecasts and data.”
She added that the FPOPD and partner agencies capacitate the RFOs with science-based tools through trainings and workshops to optimize the available data and new technology.
Morales mentioned, “We started in 2015 and 2016 (with the drone initiative) and we were aggressive in organizing trainings in 2017 and 2018. In fact, in 2017, we held a modular training on DRRM, which focuses on database management, Geographic Information System, how to fly and operate drones, and analysis of remote sensing and satellite images with the field offices and attached bureaus and agencies.”
He even commended the RFOs XI and VI for their initiative to procure their own twin engine fixed wing UAV units.
Post-disaster operation and drone limitations
The Department had used drones in the past during post-disaster operations and validation activities. Specifically, the DA applied the technology to assess damages caused by Typhoons Lawin and Nina in 2016, Typhoon Vinta in 2017, and Typhoon Ompong in 2018. Drones were also used to assess the extent of cocolisap or coconut scale insect infestation in Compostela Valley and to monitor the drought in Isabela.
Currently, the FPOPD collects data only after a disaster to validate damage reports submitted by local government units (LGUs) through the RFOs, but systems are being developed to validate and supplement datasets from satellite images.
However, the use of drones can be limited by bad weather conditions and the topography or the natural and artificial physical features of a given area. Morales also recognized that with the limited budget and UAV units of the DA, it cannot immediately cover or validate an area of 1.2 million hectares for example.
Investing in UAV technology
“We have an idea that there should be a fleet of drones or additional UAV units in every region, so that if there is a need to validate a vast area, neighboring regions or provinces can work together,” Morales stated.
He also mentioned about the DA’s plan to establish a drone technology center and his vision for the DA to develop, design, and fabricate its own UAV.
“That will be in the future,” he said.
Resulting from the DA and FAO initiative to use drones in DRRM, the drone technology center will enhance the capacity and competency of the personnel of the DA and attached bureaus and agencies in the application of UAV and related geo-spatial technologies in the agriculture and fisheries sector.
“This (project) will be in collaboration with the DA Information and Communications Technology Service (ICTS) and state universities and colleges will possibly be tapped to be our partners,” Morales said.
The DA’s DRRM strategic plan envisions that by 2025, DRRM should have been mainstreamed into the development planning and actions in the agriculture and fisheries sector. It also aims at enhancing the resilience of the sector to natural hazards and disasters.
With a cost-effective technology like the UAV, impact mapping and assessments can be done and relevant data can be collected and disseminated. Timely and locally relevant information can also be provided to decision-making bodies and the farming and fishing communities to guide their actions and minimize or prevent risk. (Gumamela Celes Bejarin/DA-AFID)