Drones playing increasing role in disaster response: CAV Canada Panel

Drones playing increasing role in disaster response: CAV Canada Panel

By Scott Simmie


In recent years, drones have proven indispensable in the field of emergency services.

They’re routinely used to assess damage following disasters, to document serious accidents and allow roads to re-open sooner, for situational awareness during firefighting operations, Search and Rescue operations – and much more.

So as we head into a future of Smart Mobility and Smart Cities, it’s fair to assume that the role of drones will continue to grow. And that was the thrust of a panel at CAV Canada in Ottawa September 28 entitled “Aerial First Responders: Drones transforming emergency services.”

Moderated by InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece, the panel brought together experts from the world of drones, EMT, AI/Machine Learning – and more.


Philip CAV Canada Drone Panel



CAV Canada is an annual gathering devoted to the field of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. And drones are very much a part of that sector.

Down the road, it’s anticipated that automated drone deliveries of critical supplies – including medicines and even organs for transplant – will be routine in major urban centres. The US Federal Aviation Administration is already talking about setting aside specific corridors for use by UAVs to help ensure they do not conflict with traditional crewed aircraft. So that connected, autonomous future is coming – and emergency response will be part of that world.

The panel included experts from various specialties within the drone world. Those participating were:

  • Wade MacPherson, an Advanced Care Paramedic with the County of Renfrew and drone operator
  • Sharon Rossmark, CEO of Women and Drones and a commercial aircraft pilot
  • Dr. Robin Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and a specialist in drones and disaster response. (Dr. Murphy was involved with deploying drones following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005; the first use of drones in a US disaster scenario.)
  • Jason Chow, Director of Strategy and Business Development with Elroy Air. The company is manufacturing an automated delivery aircraft that can carry 300 pounds of cargo in a quickly swappable pod
  • Mathieu Lemay, CEO and Co-Founder of Lemay.ai and AuditMap.ai – and an authority on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Below: The panel. Philip Reece is on the far left; the other panel members appear in order above from L-R

Philip CAV Canada Drone Panel



When it comes to emergency response, there’s no question that drones are now firmly part of the tool kit. And lately, it seems, there’s no shortage of disasters.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing more and more wildfires, more earthquakes, more floods – even tornadoes,” said Reece as he kicked off the session. Paramedic Wade Macpherson said it’s routine to deploy drones in his line of work.

MacPherson said his paramedic organization has eight drones that are used regularly. They’ve been used to deliver prescription medications during floods, in Search and Rescue missions, and for situational awareness. Not only can drones gather data or deliver critical medications, said MacPherson, but they also help keep other professionals out of harm’s way. He sees great potential for their use in delivering Automated External Defibrillators, which are used to help cardiac arrest patients. Research in Renfrew County has shown that a drone can deliver an AED unit faster than a speeding paramedic vehicle.

AEDs by drone, he said “could be an enormous game-changer…time is absolutely critical.” In fact, the odds an untreated cardiac patient will survive diminish by 10 per cent each subsequent minute following the event.

Recently, said MacPherson, the Renfrew paramedics were called to assist in locating a missing Canadian Forces helicopter that had crashed. And again, drones were deployed.




Most drones deployed in emergency response situations are smaller machines – with the smallest weighing just under 250 grams. While such machines can still prove useful for Search and Rescue and situational awareness, a growing number of companies are manufacturing larger uncrewed vehicles capable of greater range and cargo. Elroy Air is one of those companies.

“Our sweet spot is 300 pounds (cargo) and 300 miles (range),” said Jason Chow. Because the Elroy Air vehicle is a fixed-wing VTOL, it takes off and lands like a helicopter – meaning it doesn’t require a runway. Its cargo pod can be rapidly switched out. Chow says carrying humanitarian supplies and disaster relief are among the use-cases for such aircraft.

“(The aircraft can carry out) Search and Rescue, monitoring wildfires,” said Chow. “But the main one for us is the cargo pods, being able to go from a supply depot and move the different kinds of supplies the firefighters need to potentially dangerous areas where you don’t want helicopters flying.”

Using drones, he says, takes the risk and cost out of the equation. Medical supplies, food, water – even fuel or batteries – can be carried in those pods.

Below: The Elroy Air Chaparral, with cargo pod


Elroy Air Chaparral

AI, Machine Learning, Autonomy


Where things get really interesting is when you start layering in enhanced capabilities such as AI, Machine Learning, and autonomous flights.

Systems such as SkyScoutAi are capable of being automatically dispatched the moment AI detects the beginning of a wildfire. Data about the location and intensity of the burn can be quickly relayed to emergency responders. In other words, there’s a human “on the loop” – rather than someone manually operating the aircraft via remote control. It’s faster, more efficient, and should lead to earlier detection and mitigation.

The Elroy Air system also involves automated flights – and the company is exploring automation for loading the cargo pods. In a natural disaster or emergency, this would also mean that critical goods get to the required destination more quickly.

“We want to be able to prepackage all the cargo into these cargo pods so that you don’t have to be there in a dangerous environment,” said Chow. “That’s what we’re thinking about, extending the capabilities and reducing risk.”

The potential for AI appeals to paramedic MacPherson. He explained that while he’s confident about his paramedic skills, he doesn’t have the same proficiency when it comes to drones. An automated flight path for search and rescue operations, he said, would be more efficient than a paramedic manually operating the craft. “I’m an expert in paramedics and ultrasound, but not at all the latest drone techniques,” he said, adding that using AI to optimise the search path would be useful.

There was agreement elsewhere on the panel.

“It’s all about getting the right information to the right person at the right time,” said Dr. Robin Murphy. “How do you get it to them?…So AI’s got a huge role to play.”




There was also recognition that emergency response requires specialised skills. In the early days, it was enough to simply know how to pilot a drone. Not anymore.

“A lot of people think it’s about learning to fly the drone,” observed Sharon Rosemark of Women and Drones.

“What’s missing is the specific applications and expertise…So really helping people understand that the drone is a tool, but within that there are other applications and other opportunities.”

Below: An InDro Wayfinder drone, which has been used in trials for prescription drug delivery to remote locations

Delivery Drone Canada



InDro has long been involved with drones (and now robots!) and emergency response. We’ve carried out prescription drug deliveries, Automated External Defibrillator trials, and even shuttled COVID test supplies for an isolated First Nations community at the peak of the crisis. We’ve seen, first-hand, just how valuable these tools can be.

“There’s no question that drones and robots have become essential tools for First Responders,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “It’s also pretty clear that their utility will continue to grow. AI and automation will add both to their value – and to the number of applicable use-cases. We look forward to helping to push the envelope.”

A final FYI: InDro has carried out specialised drone training for First Responders for many years. We are now able to expand that training to include ground robots at the Drone and Advanced Robotics Training and Testing facility at Area X.O in Ottawa (which also features a huge, netted enclosure for drone training and evaluation). If you’re interested, please contact us here.

InDro Robotics tapped to fly drone missions at Kelowna fire

InDro Robotics tapped to fly drone missions at Kelowna fire

By Scott Simmie


As forest fires continue to threaten Kelowna, BC, officials have urged tens of thousands of residents to heed warnings and evacuate from the area. Some 30,000 people are currently under an evacuation order, with another 36,000 being told to stand by and be ready to flee if necessary.

“We cannot stress strongly enough how critical it is to follow evacuation orders when they are issued,” said BC minister of Emergency Management Bowinn Ma on Saturday. “They are a matter of life and death not only for the people in those properties, but also for the first responders who will often go back to try to implore people to leave.”

Now, the City of Kelowna has called on InDro Robotics to assist with the effort by flying drone missions to gather specific data.

Recent footage shows just how close the fire is to the city:



On Friday, InDro Robotics was approached by the City of Kelowna to assist in damage assessment by flying drones in the affected areas and also to carry out thermal missions. The first flights are being deployed today (Monday, August 21, 2023).

InDro is carrying out thermal missions over the city landfill, which is burning beneath the surface. A FLIR sensor will identify hot spots for those involved with fire management.

“With a rapidly changing situation, decision-makers need the best available data,” explains InDro CEO Philip Reece. “The thermal data will be useful – as these subterranean fires, which can smoulder for days and even weeks, are not visible to the naked eye.”

In addition, InDro will be flying missions to assess damage and pull together high-resolution photogrammetry. Plans are to use the Spexigon platform for those missions.




The Spexigon platform simplifies the acquisition and processing of high-resolution earth imagery using most popular drones.

The software standardises the capture to produce imagery at scale. The process begins with Spexigon capturing and indexing raw drone imagery. That imagery can then be used by the SpexiGeo software (or other third-party platforms).  The imagery below was captured by Spexigon, but processed and viewed on the SpexiGeo app (you can scroll through the imagery and zoom in, revealing the high resolution).



Spexigon automates the flights; the pilot’s job is simply to monitor the airspace like a visual observer (though manual control can be taken over at any time). This automation results in greater accuracy when capturing data over targets of interest and produces a database that can easily and securely be accessed by decision-makers.

The Spexi app provides access to multiple features, including:

  • Planning tools for efficient and accurate data acquisition
  • Autonomous flight using the latest DJI drones
  • Secure, cloud-based footage processing and sharing
  • Survey work using Ground Control Points

“Obtaining high-resolution photogrammetry requires precise flying – including maintaining a consistent height above ground level,” says Reece. “The automated flights will ensure consistent photos – which will provide decision-makers with a clear picture of what’s been damaged, and to what extent.”




The spectacle of this raging fire has, unfortunately, drawn some unwanted attention. Officials say unauthorized drones flights have been taking place with people posting video to social media. The presence of drones not directly related to emergency operations is both illegal and dangerous. Water bombers and helicopters are in regular use and drones can pose a threat to those operations.

“Drones are a significant hazard to our air crews fighting fires,” said Bruce Ralson, BC’s Minister of Forests, on Saturday. “Now is not the time to take the footage or photos of active wildfires. Not only is it irresponsible, but it is illegal to fly them in fire areas.”

InDro is working closely with Kelowna emergency operations to ensure any drone flights do not pose a conflict with crewed aviation.

“This will be an ongoing operation and we’ll obviously be taking great care to ensure any InDro-operated flights are well clear of other aerial firefighting operations,” says Reece (pictured below).

InDro Robotics



The wildfires near Kelowna – and Yellowknife – are obviously of serious concern. InDro hopes to make a meaningful contribution to those involved in the emergency response.

“Drone-gathered data – whether thermal or visual – helps those in charge make the best possible decisions in a rapidly changing situation,” says InDro’s Reece. “We will fly missions as long as required, and offer any other assistance we can. We hope the situation for the tens of thousands of people impacted by this disaster returns to normal as soon as possible.”

We’ll provide further updates as missions progress.

Update: Following the completion of our missions, the City of Kelowna provided the following statement.

“The Regional District of the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Center contracted InDro Robotics to capture drone footage of the Clifton-McKinley fire area.  Flights were coordinated and authorized through the Emergency Operations Center.

“The thermal imagery captured by drones improved firefighting by providing precise data on underlying fire threats. Marking specific hotspots on maps where the ground temperature exceeded safe levels allowed responders to pinpoint exactly where fires were burning underground, ensuring a more effective and targeted response. In addition, the footage allowed Emergency Operations Center staff to share imagery with directly impacted property owners, allowing them to understand the magnitude of the damage before it was safe to allow re-entry.”

Credit for feature image: Murray Foubister via Wikimedia Commons