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Aerial Survey in response to natural disasters

Kokusai Kogyo was one of seven survey companies to mobilise its survey airplanes after the Great East Japan (GEJ) Earthquake in 2011. Aerial photography of the entire 4,400 km2 affected area was completed within two days after the earthquake. The imageries were used throughout the recovery phase including for insurance, tax relief claims, and victim fund application. 

After an earthquake or a tsunami, an area’s map informationbecomes outdated, although maps are an underlying infrastructurenecessary for many other services. Aerial photography isthe preferred solution to update the map information as quicklyas possible following a disaster, as it provides intuitively understandable,higher resolution images compared to satellite imagery.Moreover, the set timing of satellite flyover means imagerycan be compromised by a lack of light or cloud cover. This iswhy the emergency agreement for disaster-related emergencysurvey work has been put into effect in 2006.

Experience from past disasters showed that remote areas couldbe left uncharted, and conversely, airplane accidents and duplicatecoverage are likely in high-profile areas. Differing qualitystandards and specifications also made it hard for availableinformation to be used effectively. The emergency agreementis designed to reduce such potential problems, and coordinatein advance so that multiple companies could be mobilised asquickly as possible, follow the same standards, and not be incompetition to produce the most popular imagery by agreeing onfair method of remuneration.

Disaster response mobilisation

GeospatialInformation Authority of Japan (GSI), an agency under Japan’sMinistry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), andthe Association of Precise Survey and Applied Technology (APA),an association for standardising, quality control, and innovationand use of geospatial information, with 94 member companies has an emergency agreement, which is a short, bare-bones document,states that the APA, when requested by the GSI in anevent of a disaster, will identify and recommend from among its member companies the ones suitable for the job. The GSI agrees to purchase the survey products from the recommended companies on a fast-track sole-source contract basis, and companies agree to be ready and willing to immediately mobilise.

Staff at APA headquarters, located in Tokyo, felt a large tremor on 11 March despite being 400 kilometres away from the epicentre, and realised that in all probability, an emergency aerial survey will soon be requested. The request arrived from GSI 45 minutes after the initial quake, despite the continuing aftershocks, and APA initiated their procedure. APA had to contact member companies on their list of emergency contacts of that year, check their availability, and then rank the available companies according to pre-arranged criteria (such as the ability to complete the flight mission without additional fuelling) so that a short list of recommended companies could be sent back to GSI.

It is noteworthy that in this unprecedentedly large earthquake, GSI sent out their first request without being able to give precise details as to area and the required quality standard, which are usually included to assure a standardised product. Member companies had a difficult decision process, in whether to respond without these details, but APA was able to send its recommendation list back to GSI, three hours after the earthquake. GSI made their selection, and opened dialogue directly with the companies.

Although electricity was out and transport and communications in the Tokyo metropolitan area remained mostly paralysed, seven companies mobilised the next morning, thanks to the preparations set in advance. The bulk of the digital aerial photography survey commenced on 12 March and finished on 13 March. Detailed aerial photographs of the disaster were made available on GSI and company websites from 13 March onwards.

(This section courtesy APA, from their internal report dated December 2011)

Emergency agreement activation timeline

11 March, Friday

14:46 Great East Japan Earthquake

15:30 GSI sends standby notice

15:45 GSI requests APA for list of companies

15:54 APA begins contacting member companies

17:59 APA tells GSI: 7 companies ready to respond

22:37 APA tells GSI: 9 companies ready to respond


12 March, Saturday

12:07 GSI informs APA that emergency survey job had been successfully contracted out to six




Summary of APA member company response *


Area (km2)

Time of mobilisation

Name of company

N. Sanriku


11:00 am

Asia Air Survey

S. Sanriku


9:10 am

Kokusai Kogyo



10:00 am


Sendai Harbor


11:00 am

Aero Asahi Corporation

Kurikoma Mtn. (E)




Kurikoma Mtn. (W)


9:23 am




* A seventh company, Nakanihon, subsequently joined on the secondround of calls.

** The inland survey was cancelled due to bad weather.

Flight paths by company, 12 March


Aerial photography of Rikuzentakata City (Left) October 2010 (Right) 13 March 2011

Blue line on 2011 image denotes tsunami extent



Fulfilling social responsibility

Right after the GEJ Earthquake hit, the main technical office ofKokusai Kogyo, located in the west of Tokyo, understood that theepicentre was off Japan’s east coast and that a huge tsunamiwas anticipated. As always, the company immediately took action,getting ready to fulfil the social responsibility of a surveyingcompany which is to record what happened.

Kokusai Kogyo received a phone call from APA when it was aboutto establish its disaster response team. What was needed firstwas to confirm the safety of its employees and the status of itsfacility and equipment, which were located all over the country includingthe affected areas. Soon it was reported that three Cessnaairplanes, with expensive digital survey cameras on board, wereirretrievably damaged when the tsunami ravaged Sendai Airport inMiyagi Prefecture, one of the most devastated prefectures. Nevertheless, Kokusai Kogyo finally found a way to commissionan airplane from a small Tokyo area airport and sent a positiveresponse to APA within two hours after the initial request.Next morning, Kokusai Kogyo’s airplane mobilised the earliestamong the six companies to fly out, and covered the widestcoastal area, south of Route 45, as instructed by GSI in theirhand-annotated six-page fax received during the night.

The emergency agreement permitted Kokusai Kogyo to give outthese aerial photos through its website. Kokusai Kogyo went a stepfurther, and added high-resolution satellite and radar satellite images(IKONOS, GeoEye, Cosmo-Skymed, RapidEye, RADARSAT, andTerraSAR-X) and their derivative analysis products, including computermodelled tsunami simulations, on their corporate website.As a geospatial-information-based consulting company, Kokusai Kogyohad pre-disaster images in stock, and provided hard as well asdigital copies of pre- and post-disaster paired aerial photo sets andmaps to local governments and emergency response workers, andhelped locals and visitors alike to orient themselves on the changedlandscape. These free data products, available from 13 March,formed the core of Kokusai Kogyo’s CSR following this unprecedenteddisaster.

Oblique aerial photograph of Shizugawa area, Miyagi Prefecture, on 12 March 2011

Kokusai Kogyo also responded to a separate GSI-APA emergencyagreement for airborne laser surveys with six other companies inApril, when the need for a new elevation map of the area, due toshifts resulting from seismic activities became apparent. Through theemergency agreement and beyond, the actions of Kokusai Kogyoand fellow member companies of the APA show that the private sectorcan be counted on, when their professional services and technicalexpertise are needed by their public sector partners and the community.

Kokusai Kogyo’s contribution to disaster-affected communitiesthrough aerial photography was not only limited to the productionand supply of data. Kokusai Kogyo had made some of the GIS-basedadministration information systems for local governments in the Tohokuarea. When these local governments’ offices were damagedby the tsunami, Kokusai Kogyo sent not only their backup data, butcomputers and employees to man their offices.

Aerial imagery for insurance and tax relief claims

Using reliable high-resolution aerial imagery taken in the emergencyagreement survey, together with property and taxation databases,Kokusai Kogyo employees assisted local governments in issuingexpedited disaster property damage certificates to residents whoneeded to prove eligibility when applying for insurance and tax reliefclaims, for support from the Act on Support for Livelihood Recoveryof Disaster Victims, or for home loan financing for disaster victimsthrough the Japan Housing Financing Agency. By expediting normalcertification procedures, which would require on-site visits by governmentworkers, residents could access such forms of assistancemuch sooner. The emergency aerial photography was put to practicaluse in assisting residents well into the recovery phase.