Photonics plays key role after Nepal earthquake

From satellites to smartphones, today's imaging technologies have proven instrumental to relief efforts in Nepal

22 May 2015
Aeryon sUAVs in Nepal earthquake response
Poised for action: Aeryon's sUAVs were instrumental to mapping regions of devastation to help GlobalMedic relief workers. (Aeryon)

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- When a natural disaster strikes, humanitarian responses often take time to find their most effective targets. With infrastructure damaged or destroyed, it's a challenge for aid to reach the people who need it the most. In the recent Nepal earthquakes, new tools based on photonics technologies have helped to speed that response.

An article just published online in SPIE Newsroom explores some of the rapid-response technology that has helped to locate people trapped by the earthquake, survey damage, and map the land to identify where it has moved.

Using images from satellites in space and low-flying drones, relief groups have been able to prioritize deliveries of food, water, and other assistance to areas where it is most needed. Crowdsourced comparisons of before-and-after images have managed to identify and tag thousands of damaged buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. People around the world have helped with this effort just by spending time at their computers, using a platform called Tomnod from DigitalGlobe.

In the article, DigitalGlobe research scientist Georgios Ouzounis said that the company's recently launched WorldView-3 satellite was able to play a key role in providing images, as Nepal was within its field of view. The images collected have a resolution as high as 30 centimeters.

Writer Rebecca Pool, who researched the article for SPIE Newsroom, said that besides the humanitarian response, the speed and breadth of the technological response was impressive.

"I was amazed at how quickly information was made publicly available," she says. "People heard about the disaster and immediately knew they had technology and information to help, and they did."

The article, "Photonics technologies are first responders to Nepal earthquake," appears on SPIE Newsroom at It is accompanied by a photo gallery and a short video, and links to organizations mentioned in the article. .

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