A Japanese climber has broken her leg. She dangles precariously on the icy ridge of a fjord in Norway. Above her only sky. Below, a deep green valley and deeper dark waters. Her climbing partners are anxious to get her down. It’s too steep on one side. On the other side it’s to narrow. Suddenly, out of the whiteness, a drone the size of a man rises into the air. The climbers are not quite sure what to do. The whirring of the propellers is alien but strangely familiar. It hovers in mid-air for a moment moving back and forth. Even the injured climber’s excruciating pain cannot blind her dumb curiosity. She scratches her head. “Help is on the way,” it says in Japanese over a loudspeaker. It’s a rescue drone. It turns and darts down the valley like a honey bee in Spring.
This is just one scenario that demonstrates the utility of the drone. For several months we never heard about their usefulness. The media reported they were only good for delivering dirty bombs or accidentally getting sucked into commercial airline engines. The drone and the interpreters behind the rescue are pure fantasy at this very moment. I think soon I could be getting a phone call to interpret for a rescue mission.
First, let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was living in Bolivia. I was working for a non-profit that was heading up a relief mission for record flooding in the Beni, a region in the Amazon basin. The flooding covered hundred’s of square miles. This wasn’t ankle deep flooding, it was several feet deep over large areas of land. Hundreds of communities were cut off from food and medicine. I remember that the military used boats in many places but there weren’t enough. The television showed a helicopter flying over the little islands dotting the landscape. It was hard too watch. For the first couple of weeks you could see movement down there. Then, as the stubborn flood continued, you stopped seeing the movement of animals and people. Maybe they swam for it. I just remember that there was no way to communicate. There was no way effective way to deliver food, medicine, or any essential. They needed dozens of military choppers.
So, how does the rescue drone interpreter fit into this. Well, I imagine in the not so distant future. In a place not too far from here there will be a disaster. Let’s say like the earthquake in Ecuador just a few weeks ago. The folks in Ecuador speak many languages. So, rescue missions are really challenging in some cases. Especially when international efforts are in play. Most American’s don’t speak Mam or have even heard of it. In my hypothetical scenario mission control is Quito is coordinating food and medicine drops to communities outside the cities, cutoff by debris and fallen buildings. In some cases, these drops are threatened by hooligans running about threatening people. (That part of the scenario is already happening!) So, in comes a team of military drones capable of lifting large containers and even people if necessary. However, the drone pilots at mission control are all Dutch, let’s say. Here comes the interpreter? The pilot can see and speak to people using the drone. This is a game changer for the relief effort. There are 24 drones and they can each fly for up to an hour with a large payload. The interpreter sits next to the pilot and the doctors assessing the problems. Just like the Japanese woman stuck on the side of the mountain, the drone arrives and says in Mam, “Help is on the way!”