How Technology is Re-shaping the Communications Landscape for Relief Operations

“As the space and satellite industry continues to grow at a rapid pace, Mobile Satellite Service operators are developing ways to prepare for and break through the complex barriers that will enable technology to reach and assist those in need of it most.”

Amal Ezzeddine, Senior Director Government Services

In times of natural disaster, conflict and disease, the need for vital information is essential and it saves lives. Looking at the natural disasters that have taken place over the years: typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; the Tsunami in Japan; earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan, Nepal and China, access to telecommunication services has played a critical role in ensuring a community receives the support it needs.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said: “…without direct collaboration with humanitarian organizations, volunteer and technical communities run the risk of mapping needs without being able to ensure that these needs can be met.”

So what steps does the satellite community need to take to prepare for the next natural disaster?

Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) operators must not wait for disaster to strike, before taking steps to help as collaboration on relief efforts cannot afford to be event driven. These steps include that equipment is ready and packaged to be deployed to working teams at short notice and rescue teams should be appropriately trained on the use of communication equipment. It is therefore crucial that this equipment is a part of drills, exercises and any training programs that rescuers undertake. Humanitarian teams need technical support and know-how where it matters most - on the ground. After all, time costs lives. There must be further collaboration and co-operation; and it needs to be continuous.

Because technology can help people in their greatest need, it is a huge responsibility to keep a reliable mission-critical network operational, and to maintain high-quality communications services where and when they are needed. For the satellite community to transform the humanitarian response further, technological advances, operational readiness, immediate transportation and deployment are of key importance.

It’s a well-known fact that, during an environmental or man-made crisis, terrestrial networks become unreliable for a number of reasons, such as congestion or infrastructure destruction. In these situations, NGOs frequently turn to MSS operators for the provision of what could be the only means of communicating with the outside world and for coordinating relief and appropriate responses. Satellite communication in these situations is simply more reliable than terrestrial networks.

Satellite communications are also the most easy to deploy in rural and remote areas. The satellite provides blanket coverage in any country irrespective of being an urban or rural area. End-user equipment and services including satellite handheld terminals for voice connectivity, data terminals for broadband connectivity, help establish effective communications to rural areas which in turn provides people with medical help, medicine, food and emergency communications. This is their main connection to the world. It is also a well-known and proven fact that the availability of Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in any area acts as a catalyst towards economic stability.

Most recently, a cost-effective DigiMed Solution launched by DigiGone came as a huge advancement in telemedicine. DigiMed bridges an information gap during crises by allowing real-time teleconferencing to take place between doctors and patients at the scene of an emergency. Such solutions continue to revolutionize the field of telemedicine and serve as a vital lifeline for organizations working out in the field or at sea. It provides critical voice communications for relief teams, weather, and mapping services – crucial activities for those working in disaster areas.


New and lightweight flying drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are also becoming more important in disaster relief. They can run reconnaissance missions in disaster zones, spot stranded people, map changed ground, and document areas that need attention. Drones help deliver communications quickly and efficiently, reaching disaster areas not accessible by road. With the right terminal, drones can take and send images and they can also check the quality of a network, or give the network a boost. Drones have already been used to deliver polio virus vaccinations in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan as they are capable of carrying up to 10kg in weight.

The intent is to create dependable solutions based on a deep understanding of SAR (search and rescue) requirements, and the environment out in the field. It is critical for those deployed in remote and often dangerous locations to be able to make timely informed decisions regarding SAR activities, emergency management and situational awareness.

Relief users require simple and seamless technology, which can function in the dusty terrains of North Africa or in the rainy tropics of the Philippines. While the satellite technology community has made huge strides in delivering life-saving services and products to them and to those affected by man-made and natural disasters, there is a lot more to be done and the community must continue to build on what has been learnt. 

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