Drone testing for search and rescue missions in Kazakhstan

New technology to strengthen emergency response

by Tatiana Ten
Test launch of a drone in Zhambyl district, Almaty province, Kazakhstan.
M. Muldasheva
18 February 2019

As the drone lifts into the sky, the excitement is almost enough to keep us warm in sub-zero temperatures. Here, at the edge of a vast steppe in the foothills of the mountains, we are witnessing Kazakhstan’s first flight of a drone for search and rescue. UNICEF experts have joined rescue teams, business people and young innovators for one common cause: harnessing new technology to benefit society.

This spot for the test flights was chosen with care. Last July, a seven-year old boy did not come home after playing with his friends in the nearby hills. A fully equipped search and rescue operation with a helicopter could not find the boy for nearly two weeks. By then, it was too late.

Drones offer real hope: cutting down the time it takes to find someone when every minute counts, cutting the costs and even cutting the carbon footprint of search and rescue operations.

Locally produced drones are waiting to be tested as part of search and rescue training in the mountains of Kazakhstan.
M. Muldasheva
Locally produced drones are waiting to be tested as part of search and rescue training in the mountains of Kazakhstan.

Despite the weather, with thick fog and freezing temperatures, we agree with our partners that the first test went well. And stepping up to the challenge were local drone companies that volunteered their equipment for the testing – a sign that we are entering a new era where the wellbeing of children is everybody’s concern.

But for me, as an emergency and preparedness specialist, this test was just the first step. I am also interested to see how drones can support and improve the work we do to reduce the risk that natural disasters will undermine the wellbeing of children. Kazakhstan is no stranger to such disasters: mudslides, flash floods, earthquakes, to name just a few. Drones can help to map areas at the greatest risk of disasters, supporting not only regular monitoring, but early action to protect communities.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country. It also boasts very diverse terrain – steppes, hills, mountains, lakes and rivers. Its large territory and varied landscape offer a great testing ground for such innovative work. In October last year, we agreed with the Government of Kazakhstan to set up two drone testing corridors – in the north and the south of the country. These corridors will provide space for a whole range of partners, including academics and the private sector, to explore how drones can deliver services that will benefit communities.

Students from UNICEF Innovations Lab study UAV during drone testing for search and rescue operations in Kazakhstan
M. Muldasheva
Students from UNICEF Innovations Lab study UAV during drone testing for search and rescue operations in Kazakhstan.

As well as search and rescue operations, the ability of drones to carry out three other key tasks will be tested in the coming months

  • The location and mapping of areas that are flood-prone in the northern corridor, and prone to mudslides and avalanches in the southern corridor, including damage assessment.
  • The establishment of ad-hoc temporary connectivity networks (Wi-Fi or cellphone access) above emergency areas, particularly where the terrain makes it difficult to connect.
  • Location and mapping of forest wildfires in remote areas, with a strong focus on international and regional coordination.

The impact of this work can reach far beyond the borders of Kazakhstan. The two corridors are part of UNICEF’s global efforts to use drones in humanitarian action. At the end of last year, Vanuatu has already used UNICEF’s drone-testing corridor for the world’s first successful delivery of vaccines by drone. Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Emergency may also take part in this work to explore opportunities for drone application in disaster risk reduction and response.

UNICEF always emphasises innovation in everything we do, including in humanitarian action for children, and the Kazakhstan corridors expand our work in this area. Such efforts are vital as we build local, open-source capacity and knowledge. I believe that today’s technologies offer so many opportunities to make this world a better and safer place for every child. So I am excited for the future, as UNICEF works with governments and other partners to allow drones to deliver vital and often life-saving services to children worldwide.  

To learn more, see our press release. Companies and individuals can register their interest in using the testing corridors by completing an online form here: https://bit.ly/2S5LKpD

Tatiana Ten is an Emergency Specialist with UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Office.

UNICEF Kazakhstan