Americas Rescue

American Red Cross takes serious look at using drones for disaster relief, holds off for now


By Matt McFarland

A new study, commissioned by the American Red Cross, calls drones one of the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief efforts.

The report, which will be announced Tuesday morning at the American Red Cross’s Washington headquarters, was conducted by Measure, a start-up that provides drone services to companies around the world, along with several of the Red Cross’s corporate partners.

Measure met with the American Red Cross’s Richard Reed, its senior vice president for disaster cycle services, in the fall to discuss a potential partnership. Reed encouraged the group to come back with examples of how the Red Cross could use the technology.

“This study puts us all in a much better position to at least think critically about this technology and how we might want to leverage it,” Reed told me. “The application and use for this in the disaster environment, I would say is pretty new. There’s lots of opportunities, there’s lots of questions that probably still need to be answered and due diligence needs to be done. But I think at some point this technology will come to bear.”

A major question mark for Reed is regulations. Commercial drone operations are illegal in the United States without an FAA-granted exemption, and rules likely won’t be finalized until 2017.

“We certainly don’t want to do anything that is not sanctioned or regulated in a way that makes sense,” Reed said. “We need to have some clarity around what is the policy environment these things will operate in.”

Since the Red Cross relies on donations, Reed stressed the importance of being able to make a cogent argument to donors about the Red Cross’s plans. A 2014 Associated Press poll found that only 21 percent of Americans favor commercial use of drones.

Tuesday’s report pointed to situations when drones already have proved useful, plus examples of future opportunities.

“There’s just all sorts of information that first responders are desperate to have and in many cases the only way to get it is through an unmanned vehicle that can hover and fly quite low to the ground,” said Justin Oberman, Measure’s president.

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