Long before the invention of drones, emergency managers determined the overall scope of a crisis using information from emergency personnel on the ground, and from the chain of command created through the Incident Command System. Today, drones have many capabilities that could enhance response activities and change the way disasters are managed. Hurricane Harvey demonstrated how this technology is rapidly changing.
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS, referred to here as “drones”) empower emergency managers to evaluate a serious disaster situation with the use of a drone, potentially complementing the information they have from personnel. In other circumstances, the use of drones prevents personnel from entering a potentially hazardous scene before emergency managers understand exactly what they are dealing with. As such, fire departments, hazardous materials teams, search and rescue teams, and police departments can use drones, with clever uses (e.g., infrared imaging) depending on the nature of the emergency.
Drones, with near artificial intelligence, can provide a unique perspective and review extensive information for an incident. Used as a complementary tool, drones can provide a large amount of information for a variety of incidents. In some cases, they have assisted with response efforts involving people who may otherwise have been impossible to rescue.
Benefits of Drone Technology After Disaster
Although drones can be expensive to purchase, they can provide invaluable information on scene for an emergency management office, Emergency Medical Services, law enforcement agencies, and fire departments. Additional information provided through this technology enhances life-saving potential when minutes count. Following a disaster, drones can significantly influence the ability to save lives and assess damages.
Lightweight, quadcopter drones outfitted with cameras can send images back to insurance professionals – some in real time. Drones are changing how some insurance companies are conducting inspections. For example, Allstate launched permanent drone damage inspection programs in spring 2017 in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. For major U.S. insurers, this technology saves time while maintaining safety for adjusters and inspectors. The typical amount of inspections per adjuster in a flood zone like Houston, Texas, increases from three homes a day to 10 or more when drone technology is implemented. Similarly, communications companies and power companies have used drones to inspect their equipment.
The expanding drone industry is evidenced by an increasing number of commercial drone pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted more than 59,000 U.S. certificates required to pilot drones commercially since they began issuing them in 2016. Drones have been a prominent presence in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, providing extensive coverage as an emergency response tool – on mainstream media and social media. Emergency response agencies’ growing interest in this emerging technology may become a key tool for quicker, more accurate responses with lifesaving benefit.
Hurricane Harvey Response
Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath illustrate the value and perils of drones. Remote-controlled aircraft have been promoted for more than 10 years for dangerous missions, like inspecting damaged and flooded buildings. The FAA authorized 43 drone operators in the wake of Harvey, and prohibited private drone pilots from flying in a broad area around Houston due to concern for emergency aircraft and rescue helicopters as they lifted people from rooftops and searched for survivors.
After Harvey made landfall, the FAA authorized federal, state, and local officials to use drones to assess damage and prioritize recovery efforts. They also informed the public they would fine drone operators if they interfered with government response activities. Houston issued a temporary flight restriction for nongovernment drones within 100 miles of Houston for the first month of the Harvey response and recovery efforts. Many drone advocates began to see the heavy early drone presence in the first hours of Harvey posed the possibility of doing long-term damage to the public’s perception of drone usage. These advocates were concerned that private drone use during Harvey could increase government restrictions in the future, as they got in each other’s way and as the drones were used by the curious. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, representing 200,000 hobbyists, also urged drone pilots to stay away from Harvey response efforts.
Eight trip approvals, like those for commercial aircraft flight plans, went to a railroad company to survey damage along tracks running through Houston. Five went to oil or energy companies to look for damage to fuel tanks, power lines, and other facilities. As emergency management officials continue checking damage to roads, bridges, and water treatment plants, drones extend their response capability and broaden the area they can assess. Insurance officials are also examining the damage and determining the size of their clients’ claims much more quickly.
Leaders in Unmanned Systems
In Virginia, Governor Terence McAuliffe signed Executive #43 establishing the Virginia Unmanned Systems Commission to bring public and private sector experts together to recommend ways to make Virginia the national (and perhaps eventually global) leader in unmanned systems. The Virginia Unmanned Systems webpage highlights Virginia’s technology centers working on unmanned technologies, placing the initiative under the Virginia Secretary of Technology’s Office.
Other Virginia partner organizations include the Center for Innovative Technology, Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Virginia Automated Corridors, and Virginia Tech Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. Charles Werner – former fire chief of Charlottesville, Virginia, chair of SAFECOM, technology chair at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and now deputy director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management – leads the Virginia Emergency Response Planning for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), organized the National Council on Public Safety-UAS (the National Council), and now serves as its chair.
Areas of increasing UAS activity and outreach in the United States include, but are not limited to the following:
- National Council – The Council was launched in April 2017 in a meeting with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Association & Society Management International Inc. (ASMI). With an established partnership with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Institute (AUVSI), the Council provides input for a public safety track at national conferences and utilizes outreach capabilities to communicate information about the Council and any positions that the Council develops or shares from member organizations.
- American National Standards Institute (ANSI) – ANSI has also created an initiative, called the ANSI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standardization Collaborative (UASSC). This is a collaborative initiative to compile all standards development activities in the field of UAS.
- FAA – A group of public safety representatives met in D.C. with all FAA divisions to share thoughts, concerns, and desires on how public safety and the FAA work together to effectively integrate into the national air space on 29 September 2017.
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology – DHS is outreaching to the National Council to develop a strategy to ensure safe, reliable, and effective integration/deployment of UAS during the various phases of a public safety event. There is also an opportunity to engage with the U.S. Department of Defense and Customs and Border Patrol. Also, there is an effort to engage the Federal Technical UAS Users Group.
- NFPA 2400, Technical Committee on UAS – The first draft of the NFPA Technical Committee on UAS is now out for public review and input. Public input will be accepted until close of business on 13 October 2017. NFPA has indicated that the public release of the standard will not likely occur until the first quarter of 2019.
Worldwide Expansion & Uses
Overall, drone engagement has introduced new lessons regarding the practical and progressive roles that drones could play in disasters. Many levels of government and governmental agencies, as well as private and nonprofit sectors are studying, seeking, and deploying unmanned aerial vehicle technologies. The environment is somewhat competitive, with rapid growth due to its many lifesaving applications, as well as sport coverage, professional and personal convenience, and economic development.
With disasters occurring anywhere in the world, there is a lot of potential to incorporate drones into response operations. For example, during the worst wildfire to strike the Southern Cape Coast, South Africa, in over 150 years, drones slowly started coming into play as a local firefighting and disaster management tool. Firefighters issued a call for drones equipped with heat mapping capabilities, which would allow them to identify hot spots at the greatest risk of flare-ups – a task virtually impossible for ground crews working in blinding smoke and dense undergrowth. In years to come, drones will take on an increasingly important role in firefighting and other disaster management activities, reducing the risk to human life during operations, and limiting damage to assets by enabling firefighters and all responders to work proactively, rather than reactively.