This year's extraordinary hurricane season marks a milestone for drones, as unmanned aircraft are becoming critical tools for rescue teams. After so much talk about how drones could potentially change ecommerce, infrastructure management, and search & rescue, now we're actually seeing drones in action. Fleets of drones headed to Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned amateur drone operators not to fly since they could get in the way of emergency response operations. But after an initial delay, certified pilots were authorized to help.
"Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech to the InterDrone conference on Sept. 6. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country."
How drones can help
Hurricane season isn't over yet, and we've already seen major hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria slam coastal communities with winds and flash flooding that caused damage that will take years to repair. The storms have been frequent and intense, but unlike previous hurricane seasons, now there is a large community of licensed drone pilots ready to help.
Drone expert Brett Velicovich tells ZDNet, "this could be the largest humanitarian drone response in US history." Velicovich, a U.S. Army Veteran who now works on commercial drone technology, has been working with other top drone experts to organize drone operators in crisis zones. In early September, he headed to Texas with what he describes as "an Army of drone volunteers ready and willing to support search and rescue efforts and plug into other Harvey response teams already on the ground." Then his team moved into Irma right before the storm hit so they could be there to offer immediate help.
Drone footage can give a broad perspective of areas that have been hit by hurricanes. For example, the Air National Guard used drones that are normally used for combat operations to fly above disaster zones and decide which areas needed the most urgent assistance.
In the age of social media, drone footage raises awareness about the devastation caused by storms and brings attention to badly affected areas while eliminating any potential spin by politicians or media.
Drones are more than just cameras - they can be equipped with technology that creates maps to identify survivor locations, show changes in landscape, identify infrastructure damage, and survey damage to estimate costs.
Mike Winn of drone mapping software DroneDeploy tells us that drone operators "A whole set of people looking to use DroneDeploy to survey land and make maps to assess the damage and also to try to find people and animals in the aftermath." He says that with billions of homes affected by recent storms, "We are probably going to see one of the largest deployments of drones ever."
Infrastructure such as electric grids and telecommunication towers can be inspected quickly and safely with drones. U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent drones to Florida to use radar to help survey infrastructure such as power plants for The Federal Emergency Management Agency.
According to the FAA, dozens of drones were used by utility companies in Florida to assist not only with power restoration-especially air conditioning--but also to ensure the safety of its crews. JEA said it was able to get all its damage assessments done within 24 hours after the storm passed through. Within an hour after the storm winds subsided, drones hired by Florida Power and Light were in the air.
Thermal imaging technology can help locate people so that search and rescue teams can quickly deliver any urgent supplies and communicate that help is on the way.
Insurance companies are using drone services such as Airbus Aerial to estimate repair costs and act more quickly on claims coming from homeowners.
Proceed with caution
Drones can help with recovery efforts, but there is an important caveat: they must stay out of the way. Strong winds can turn drones into dangerous projectiles, so even though amateurs might have good intentions, they should leave this one to the pros. Houston television station KHOU reports that recreational drones endangered rescue crews by getting in the way of helicopters.
This isn't the time for recreational pilots to test their skills; only licensed pilots should participate, and they need to proceed with caution. The FAA is issuing special waivers to drone operators for storm inspection and damage assessment, and there are still some airspace restrictions to allow first responder helicopters to safely navigate.
Velicovich explains, "The point is not to be a burden to first responders, but to be a force multiplier for them. "
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