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Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

Mitigating flood risks with drone technology

It’s been eight years since the flow of the Bow River peaked at 2,400 cubic metres per second — eight times its regular flow rate. Calgary’s June 2013 flood is no doubt one for the history books, costing the province approximately $5 billion. The city’s infrastructure alone saw an estimated $409 million in damages.

A good defense is the best offense — the best way to deal with flooding caused by climate change is to prepare for it and mitigate risks.  

Climate change doesn't say an event is going to happen. It raises the probability it will happen in a shorter time frame. Data and information can help identify and mitigate those risks.

Dr. Ken Whitehead, Scientific Lead, Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS) | SAIT

Knowledge is power

As part of the Autonomous Systems Initiative (ASI) — a multi-million-dollar research collaboration between research and industry experts across Alberta — Whitehead and his team are using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology, more commonly known as drones, to map floodplains and riverbed depths in flood-prone areas. Through the mapping process, they’re helping calibrate provincial hydrological models and identify infrastructure at risk from flood events.

SAIT’s role falls under ASI theme three, Sustainable Communities, and is part of a larger project dedicated to using autonomous systems to support infrastructure resilience and disaster response. 

“We’re using some really cool technology to look beneath the surface and detect objects. CIRUS was able to fly the first UAV-mounted Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) system, in North America.”

Whitehead adds GPR is traditionally mounted on a cart and towed behind a vehicle or manually pushed to cover areas. This new approach makes it a cost-effective tool for exploration and mapping of subsurface features, either under the ground, under ice or under shallow waterbodies.

Supported by the Government of Alberta and led by the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta, data collected through the ASI project will help the province develop an infrastructure vulnerability database. 

Whitehead anticipates UAV-mounted and in-situ sensors will become commonplace for monitoring natural disasters. Plus, stakeholders at all levels will be able to make informed decisions on the location of new developments and critical infrastructure. 

“If the technology was available and used in 2013, I think it would have helped safeguard communities,” says Whitehead. “We would have been able to help to identify which areas might be most affected. Next time, we’ll be in a better position.”

Access for all

As organizations explore the applications and capabilities of UAVs, CIRUS has a history of supporting innovation and new technology development. In June 2020, SAIT partnered with researchers at the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories partnered with the Stoney Nakoda Nations to deliver medical equipment and test kits for COVID-19 to remote areas, and to connect these communities to laboratories more quickly using UAV technology. 

The researchers conducted a successful test run at the Morley reserve using SAIT’s unmanned SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 helicopter, which can carry a payload of up to 45 kilograms. The load included personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.

Adrienne Madden

Adrienne Madden

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