Drones to the rescue!
With so many states suffering through devastating weather conditions, many are getting serious about using drones for this hurricane season. In fact, in a webinar that was hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) of North Carolina (NC), a panel of experts offered their advice to state agencies which were preparing to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for hurricane response.
There is no doubt that drones can play a key role when allowed by public safety agencies to evaluate hurricane damage rapidly. Florida Power and Light was such an agency when they announced that they will implement Percepto’s automated drone system to evaluate damage to the power infrastructure right after the storm. In order to plan community response, drone programs are being put together by state agencies across the country to get as many UAVs activated as possible.
Experts from North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Army, etc. explained in this webinar how to get ready to utilize unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in disasters. This webinar can be viewed in its entirety at the NC AUVSI website. A few of the top insights that agencies experienced in the process of using drones this hurricane season, have been highlighted.
Coordination, Safety, and Airspace Awareness
This was not the first time that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT) has used drones for response in major storms and hurricanes.
Basil Yap, program manager for the NCDOT Division of Aviation UAS Program, explains:
“Hurricane Florence was really the first coordinated effort for North Carolina. . . . We were trying to get actionable information – images or video – back to the decision makers as quickly as possible. Once the storm move through, we were using drones to document the damage that had taken place.
We were also using livestream as a remote traffic camera, to help get first responders to where they were needed.”*
The point Yap makes is that during hurricane response, not only are there many drones, but also a lot of helicopters. Such a two-pronged response makes coordination, safety and airspace awareness even more crucial. According to Yap, the North Carolina DOT works very closely with the state police department as well as the local incident commander, in areas that are affected to make sure that their drone programs are coordinated with efforts of the manned aircraft.
The FAA also plays a critical role in preparing drones and manned aircraft for hurricane response. A Program Manager for the FAA’s UAS Integration Office’s Safety & Integration Division, Michael O’Shea, serves as liaison, facilitator and resource person for the integration efforts for public and civil unmanned aircraft, O’Shea explains that the FAA’s regulations (during that period) need to be given attention in case the drones need to be kept under 200 feet, for instance, to make sure there is adequate separation from manned aircraft response.
Preparation in Advance
According to Gary Thompson, who is the Deputy Risk Management Chief, North Carolina Emergency Management/Risk Management and Chief of the North Carolina Geodetic Survey/Risk Management/NC Emergency Management, it is necessary also to make sure that drone pilots are licensed and trained for the mission in advance if it is to be a successful mission. An example of this would be people who want to work for the state of North Carolina, can apply in advance. This expedites the process with a list of pre-qualified resources that have already demonstrated the right skills, licenses, and compliance with state regulations.
O’Shea of the FAA agrees by stating, “You need to do some due diligence. . . . You need to make sure not only that [pilots] have a Part 107, but that they have the right skills and experience to get the images you need.”*
In addition, O’Shea points out that public safety agencies may need to be aware of additional federal laws and other specific laws may also apply:
“If you’re a state or local agency, and you hired a person, you’re responsible for that pilot. . . . For agencies flying under a Part 91 COA, they need to realize that if they hire an outside company, federal regulations require that the company work for the agency exclusively for 90 days.”*
Coordination with Federal Agencies
IT Project Manager in FEMA Region IV, Travis Potter, has been deployed to more than 22 disasters. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, says Potter, FEMA has provided a new preliminary damage assessment guide. He explains, “Typically, we would have to gather data by having people actually on the streets. Now, we’re allowing ‘Desktop damage assessments.’”*
While a “desktop damage assessment” requires images, Potter explains that this necessitates close coordination with other organizations in stating the following: “There is no FEMA drone force – so FEMA relies on local public safety agencies to provide the imagery required.”*
It is critical that such close coordination takes place before a disaster strikes. As Potter explains:
“During blue skies, we establish UAS working groups. The purpose of these working groups is to talk about how we can deploy together, talk about the standards for the imagery, and clarify the way that the imagery is going to make its way up to FEMA. In some states, our working groups actually hold exercises.”*
Another recommendation that Potter suggests is that drone pilots who are interested in participating in response, contact the local FEMA office, which is likely to pass them on to the state agencies which will make the final decision as to their deployment.
Yap, program manager for the NCDOT Division of Aviation UAS Program, explains that while many of the agencies are just beginning to plan on using drones for this hurricane season, the need for drones is already clear: “We’re only going to see UAS become more critical over time.”*
The need for drones during the hurricane season is clear and urgent!
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