Helping The Homeless: Drones For Good
In Britain, the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a light on many societal issues right on our doorsteps. One of these severe social failings has been the care of our homeless community. With the country on lockdown, our homeless, the often forgotten, needed our focus and direct action.
In this blog you will learn about;
- Homelessness in the UK
- How homeless charities use drones
- The future of drones helping the homeless
While rough sleepers in our cities can use empty hotel rooms for the lockdown, many are isolated from populated areas in remote parts of the countryside. It was this community, on the fringes of society, that needed to be contacted and helped. Commercial drones have long been a part of the conversation around homelessness. Covid-19 has expedited the use of UAVs in the charity and support sectors as well as in emergency services.
The emergency services are utilising UAVs at an increasing rate (we’ve discussed this in previous blog posts, if you’d like to find out more), and we wanted to investigate how those agencies and other support services are using drone technology to help their communities and their most vulnerable residents.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of homeless people aged over 60 has increased in previous years. This group is at a heightened risk of Covid-19 becoming fatal and, arguably, the homeless in this age bracket are the most vulnerable people in our society at this time. At the end of 2019, there were 320,000 people in the UK identified as homeless; this was an increase of 4% from 2018. The number of people dying while in a state of homelessness has also increased. Homelessness affects our ambulance, fire and police response services and the use of drones to communicate and trace rough-sleepers is proving invaluable.
How can drones help?
Apps such as StreetLink are an essential resource for the support and care agencies that assist homeless people. Reliant on tips from members of the public, anyone can report the location of a homeless person so that care may be given to them where needed. However, StreetLink is only useful to a point. Often, the tips from these apps are vague, and by the time a service member has come to the reported position, the person will have moved on. Collating the data to understand the accurate scale of our homeless crisis proves impossible. Communicating with the homeless community, especially those outside of cities is difficult, particularly in an emergency such as Covid-19 when peopl;qw5r4e need medical supplies, access to hygiene facilities and information on how to socially distance. Many homeless people have a wariness of authority, so being approached by a police officer or a uniformed official, will distance them further from help. This is where drones have been able to make a marked difference to councils, charities, support workers and the homeless.
Getting the message across
In the US, UK, Italy and France, drones are being used in certain areas to communicate with the homeless populations of their communities.
In a country like the US (much more expansive than the UK), using UAVs has proved successful in the pandemic. In South Maryland, Calvert County’s Sheriff’s Office has activated three new drones in the past two months, each one fitted with a loudspeaker. In some parts of Calvert County, there are homeless camps that can take two days to reach, therefore bringing information face-to-face has not always been possible. Furthermore, at the beginning of the lockdown, when social distancing was at its most extreme, officers and support workers could not reach these groups.
In March, major drone producer DJI distributed ‘100 drones to 45 police, fire and public safety organisations in 22 states.’ According to DJI’s blog (https://enterprise-insights.dji.com/blog/us-covid-19-relief-program-update) as of the beginning of April, these 100 drones had been the most substantial dispersion of UAVs to assist in the management of Covid-19. Many sheriff offices sited the safety of their officers as a concern in the epidemic and so the ability to adapt UAVs has proved invaluable. DJI asked the county offices what they needed from the drones and made them fit for purpose. The result? Modified drones with the addition of loudspeakers. DJI offered further potential adaptions for their drones, including a sanitising spray that can cover a location. While dismissed, it is an additional display of the constant innovation within drone technology and how adapted drone payloads are useful for hardware as well as deliveries.
These modified drones hovered over the more substantial, harder to reach camps. Via loudspeakers, the police issued information regarding social distancing measures, as well as other government advice on general hygiene and any restrictions over movement or interactions during the pandemic. Most crucially, however, the drones assisted these communities in accessing essential aid. While drones physically carrying aid items and medical essentials is well documented, including blood for transfusions in African states, in this instance, the drones are helping to communicate and this proved just as valuable. A small distance away from these isolated areas, volunteers and emergency services had set staging areas which provided food and PPE. The proof came when, through the trees and shrouded woodland, people arrived to accept help.
Quick and effective response times
A little closer to home, in Lincolnshire, the P3 Outreach Street Team has been using drones since 2018 to assist them in battling homelessness. This forward-thinking team pioneered using live-streamed video straight from UAVs to help support workers. The drones look to find people sleeping rough in coastal locations as well as remote and rural places all across the county.
The live streaming element allows for the support team to assess each situation – this means that they can relay precise instructions to the response teams; ensuring that each person gets the quickest and most effective help possible.
P3 Outreach has used a UAV installed with a 20mm (35mm format equivalent) camera – this ensures they can search an area in high-definition until they can locate the person that they are looking to help. Drone cameras are advancing at the same rate as the UAV technology, ensuring that the units are as useful to support agencies as possible.
P3 Outreach Worker Daniel Duffield detailed their technology: “We’re using the Phantom 3, with the FOV 94° 20 mm (35 mm format equivalent) camera; this comes as standard with the drone that has a 4,489 mAh flight capability. This enables us to view the search area in high-definition remotely until we have located the person and assessed the best route to get to them.”
P3 Service Co-ordinator, Andy Lee, noted how drones for inspection had made a difference in their community: “This technology has the potential to transform our working practice by giving us back the hours we would spend searching for someone to invest in directly improving lives.”
Thermal imaging has long been an addition to drone technology; both DJI and Parrot offer thermal imaging software with their drones. This technology helps authorities and caregivers to identify concealed persons who may be sleeping rough and to assist them. It may be that individuals are hidden in abandoned buildings or by large street items.
Furthermore, by pinpointing the location of a homeless person, help can get to that individual so much quicker than before. If a tip comes to the hotline, the drone can be in that location quickly and identify if a) that individual is known to the care services and b) what assistance that person may require. With deaths of homeless people in the UK on the rise, this could prove crucial in saving the lives of our most vulnerable.
Food by air
As early as 2015, drones have provided food for the homeless in San Francisco. Admittedly, this was a one-off and didn’t offer any long-term support, but it did showcase how drone technology can help those in need.
Two producers at Drone Lyfe (drone cinematography specialists), Kristopher Kneen and Mitch Surette, were behind drops of Burger King meals to the homeless residents of San Francisco. Given in a random act of kindness, this one-off donation to the homeless also highlighted other social media activities surrounding reuniting the homeless and displaced people of the city with their long-lost loved ones.
The personal touch
As with all new schemes and technology, there is a level of criticism and using drones to tackle homelessness has been no different. Some have been critical of the perception that the homeless community already has of authority figures – sending in drones will not help to build a relationship with authority and caregivers.
But, if handled in the right way, the use of drones can help to secure these relationships by bringing the right people to them faster. Many users of the drone system sent officers out to meet with the homeless of their towns and cities prior to lockdown, to inform them that the drones would be flying nearby to help keep them safe. This contact is a crucial step, and a great idea for anyone considering using drones. Information about them is vital; this helps to dispel the idea of hovering, watchful eyes and makes the technology a protector. Communication is especially important when dealing with a community that also has a high rate of mental health issues.
CAA guidelines also protect the rights and personal space of those under the watch of the carers or authorities. In the UK, an SUA (small unmanned aircraft) used for surveillance cannot go within 50m of an individual – this ensures that the drones cannot be misused. It also preserves privacy, ensuring that the operation of the drone feels as unintrusive as possible – this also helps to keep the rate of alarm to a minimum.
The key to the success of such an endeavour will also be dependant on drone training with a comprehensive understanding of drone regulations. When in the safest and best-trained hands, a drone can become a societal asset. Now that online drone training is widely available, not only is the technology more accessible, but the advancement of key skills within the workforce is far more achievable.
While the key to ending homelessness doesn’t lie solely in drones, it can help to fill some of the gaps which will feed into ending this unbelievable sadness in our communities.
The first impact is on data capture. By securing more accurate date on rough sleepers, we can use drone mapping software and GIS to accurately plot hubs of homelessness that were invisible before. Experts and councils will then be able to ensure that funding for shelters is going to the right places, and new shelters can be placed in the areas where they are most needed.
From this data, caregivers will be able to see the radius around existing shelters and the groups of people that may be falling outside of this catchment area. This data creates an opportunity to pitch for more funding to support these groups and to reach out to them directly – ensuring that they know where there is hot food and hopefully, a bed for the night.
Using drones for surveying rural areas ensures that the hard-to-come-by funds for such essential charities are used to their best effect, providing care for those that need it.
While there is still work to do, the application of drones throughout our society shows nothing but promise.
If you would like more information on how you can use drone technology for your charity or support work, please get in touch with one of our team today.
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