Teens at UW's SHAD camp imagine using drones to evacuate areas during natural disasters

A group of teens attending the STEM camp SHAD at the University of Waterloo have developed a plan to help get people out of dangerous situations when natural disasters hit.

Plan gives 'teens the power to make them feel in charge of their own safety,' Tara Gover says

The students attending SHAD at the University of Waterloo demonstrate how their plan would work, using a drone they made using dustpans, tape and cardboard. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A group of teens from across Canada have imagined a way to use drones to effectively and safely lead people out of areas where there are earthquakes, floods or forest fires.

The teens are attending the SHAD Network program at the University of Waterloo.

Our wicked problem that we were faced with was, how can we help teens in a natural disaster to take charge and be safer.- Tara Gover, SHAD participant

The four-week program, which is held on university campuses across the country, gives students a problem and asks them to use science, math, technology, engineering and creativity to come up with a solution.

"Our wicked problem that we were faced with was, how can we help teens in a natural disaster to take charge and be safer and so we took this as, how can we help them to get out of harm's way," said Tara Gover, 15, of Bathurst, N.B.

From rockets to drones

After discussions about possibly creating rockets, which they deemed too unrealistic, the teens settled on using drones.

Their plan sees teens who live in areas at high risk for natural disasters take care of the drones. There would be several drones in a community which would automatically be activated if there was a need to evacuate an area. The drones would then lead people to safety.

"I feel like our issue, when we created the drone box, was not only to use technology but it was to give teens the power to make them feel in charge of their own safety," Gover said.

Tara Gover, 15, of Bathurst, N.B., reads through the instructions for the drone. As part of the plan, teens would be the keepers of the drones in communities where natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods or forest fires may require an evacuation. Teens are great drone keepers, the group said, because they're interested in the technology and they want the opportunity to help and take leadership roles. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Just follow the drone

Tony Ni, 16, of Markham said many current evacuation plans in communities across Canada are unclear and it can cause confusion.

They looked at the case of the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016, when roads out of the city were clogged with people fleeing the area.

"What we're trying to solve is a clear and concise evacuation order, so that's why we use the drone. People can follow it up front and the drone will always give constant orders or instructions for them to follow, so people won't be in a panic," Ni said.

 It also makes me realize the things that, even as a teen, what we can do together.- Aufa Nollido

The team created a prototype of a drone — made of two dustpans, tape and cardboard — to help illustrate how their plan would work. They even tested it on other students attending SHAD at other locations to fine tune the procedure. After having other teens try to follow the steps of their plan, they made some tweaks. 

One change was to add video. Nellie Sun, 17, of Vancouver, B.C., said they found people were "really bad" at following written instructions.

"They didn't want to read an entire manual, even though the front page said for them to read it entirely," she said.

"That became a safety problem, because the drone needed to fly up so we also decided to have that video and make people watch it."

Working together

Ni said having teens take care of the drones makes sense because many teens are interested in technology.

"They're the next generation," he said.

"It creates this buzz around this technology and that's why we think teens are our primary target and since they like this stuff," he said.

"Then they'll take care of the drones because they can also learn from these programs."

Aufa Nollido from Wetaksiwim, Alta., said she's proud of the project they've created in their short time together.

"I didn't expect to create something that could really potentially help people," she said. "It also makes me realize the things that, even as a teen, what we can do together."