An ominous plume of black smoke hangs over east London. The scarcely believable news arrives in snippets: A huge blast has rocked the Thames Barrier; a surge of water is ploughing through the city; a sports stadium has collapsed; more explosions are reported on Twitter.
Thousands of people are trying to evacuate, but like the banks of the Thames, the mobile networks are overwhelmed.
It is time to send in the drones.
Professor Nick Jennings prefers to call them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). He is one of the chief scientific advisers to the government, and drew up this fictional scenario as part of his multi-million pound Orchid research project.
Prof Jennings believes the key to mastering the pandemonium that follows large-scale disasters lies in intelligent, co-ordinated action between man and machine.
The system he is testing will be ready next year, and will allow teams of drones to help emergency services from the air with minimal human supervision. It is yet another non-military spin-off in the burgeoning field of drone technology.
After studying real disasters like the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Prof Jennings realised that the key to successful disaster response – amidst all the chaos – is the intelligent allocation of tasks and resources, and humans on the ground are not always best placed to make those life and death decisions.
“Humans can do things like fill in maps based on what they see, starting from a blank map, which is exactly what happened in Haiti. What buildings are damaged, where facilities are, that kind of basic crowd-sourcing already happens,” says Prof Jennings.
“But we want to augment that with autonomous flying vehicles that are able to get a view of the bigger picture on the ground, to improve situational awareness. They can figure out where the disaster responders should go, where the resources should go.”
In his proposed system, UAVs will be launched immediately to monitor the unfolding disaster from the air.
They will provide real-time footage to disaster responders on the ground, who can request specific information from the drones using hand-held electronic devices …