Uttarakhand glacier burst: How this IIT Kanpur startup helped NDRF in rescue operations

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Updated: Mar 23, 2021 10:21 PM

In order to carry out the relief and rescue operations, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) called upon several private organisations to work with it and help in rescuing.

The team was brought in to help on February 11, and returned by February 15.

Uttarakhand glacier burst: Last month, Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district witnessed a glacier burst, which caused the downstream area of Rishi Ganga and Tapovan to be flooded. Amid this, the Rishi Ganga hydel project was demolished due to the water and the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project suffered severe damage. Because work on both these projects was ongoing at the time, numerous workers at these projects could not escape before the water came crashing down, carrying some of them away and trapping some under the debris of the projects and in tunnels. In order to carry out the relief and rescue operations, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) called upon several private organisations to work with it and help in rescuing trapped people. One of them is EndureAir Systems, which is a company incubated in SIIC, IIT Kanpur.

Professor Abhishek, Associate Professor at IIT Kanpur and one of the members of the core founding team of EndureAir, told Financial Express Online about the company. “EndureAir Systems is a startup that is designing and developing innovative indigenous Unmanned Aerial Systems or drones for both civilian as well as military applications. The key USP of EndureAir is that the drones designed and developed by them offer two to three times the speed and up to four times endurance (flight time), as compared to competing drone solutions available in India. In addition, the team has developed drones for higher payload and range capacity,” he said.

Uttarakhand glacier burst: Startups called in to help

Talking with Financial Express Online about the situation in Uttarakhand when the team was called over to help, Prof Abhishek said, “The disaster struck in Uttarakhand on February 7. EndureAir was brought in at disaster site on February 11 through support from Accelerating Growth of New India’s Innovations (AGNIi), which is a programme of the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, and a Mission under the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC). By the time our team was brought in, the water had already receded and the focus was to carry out rescue operations in Tapovan tunnel and survey the area between Raini village and the glacier. EndureAir helped in both these applications, and the team returned by February 15.”

He also spoke about other startups that were called in, saying, “Four startups were called by NDRF at the behest of AGNIi to support the ongoing activities at the disaster site. This happened at a very short notice and therefore, all the startups joined their hands and tried to help each other out by forming teams and sharing their equipment to build systems onsite to ensure the best possible solutions were available to meet the requirements.”

What did EndureAir do at the site?

He gave a day-to-day run down of the activities that EndureAir worked on. “On February 11, EndureAir systems and Garuda Aerospace reached the site and splitted into two teams. One team (Garuda and one member from EndureAir) went to Raini village site. They attempted to get aerial video of the river up to the glacier in search of new lake formations which might have led to another flood. The distance between Raini and glacier is 8km, but the line-of-sight is maintained only till 3 km. So a drone with a high quality camera with better video transmission system belonging to EndureAir was flown for 3 km upstream. This video was monitored by DIG himself at the site. The other team from EndureAir did close inspection of the dam with micro drones. This drone inspection was conducted to get close up views of the dam’s top floor where it was completely covered with debris. Also, there was a closed room on top of the dam which was inspected through a broken window and confirmed that it is filled with just mud and metal debris,” he explained.

“On February 12, Raini team did a close inspection of the steep cliffs where the NDRF team could not reach. Using micro drones, another team did close inspection of corners formed between large boulders and inside the ruined dam gates,” he said.

He further said, “On February 13, another ruined structure beside the dam had a lot of chambers filled with debris. This structure was also inspected by EndureAir room by room using micro drones. All these video clippings were shared with Drona Maps for creating the 3D layout of the whole disaster area. In the evening, NDRF team started making the 1ft dia bore to the tunnel that was lying 15 m below the tunnel in which the whole rescue operation was going on. DIG tasked EndureAir for deployment of micro drones, if any air pocket is found below. In response to that, EndureAir assembled a tethered system which was smaller than the drones and was capable of transmitting live video, with a siren and had high intensity torches mounted. This system was put together by taking out the modules from our drones and assembled in less than an hour. Later it was found that there was only mud down there in the tunnel where the whole was dug, hence the system could not be put to use.”

“On February 14, one team consisting of EndureAir members conducted the inspection of the river downstream for 5 km in search of any bodies on the banks and corners of the river. Also, more flights were conducted on the mountain slopes to map the whole area for future purposes using micro drones,” Prof Abhishek explained.

Lessons for EndureAir

Prof Abhishek also explained what the startup learnt during the relief operations. “We learnt that we need to focus on increasing the ease of operations for our drones. The drones in the current version can only be operated by someone with basic technical background. But to make it useful for the NDRF officials who should be able to operate it with minimal training. This will require some more development,” he said.

Further talking about how the startup could have contributed more to the operations, he said, “It was also realized that had EndureAir been called in earlier, the gasoline helicopter (Vibhram) of EndureAir which can lift 5 kg for 1 hour could have been useful for multiple missions. The task of delivering emergency supplies to the villagers on the opposite mountain with no contact to main land could have been very easily achieved with this drone. This particular task was carried by a full-size manned helicopter which resulted in delays. Since, this was only a line-of-sight operation, the whole village could have gotten supplies at Tapovan site within 3 hours using Vibhram. The same task was performed by ground teams after building the trolley bridge, which took 4 days to construct. Also, in building those trolley bridges, ropes are needed to be transferred to the other side of the river, which can be done with heavy lift drones. This suggestion was also backed by Major Ajay Sangwan from the Indian Army.”

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