Hurricane Drones: Anatomy of UAVs in the Eye of Disaster

Only a handful of years ago, the sleek, hi-tech Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as we know them, sounded more like aircraft science fiction. But as this technology has developed, it has finally migrated into the mainstream as a valuable tool that enables professional operators to fly a peeping eye into critical airspace. UAVs are sent into the heart of accident scenes and storm damaged areas alike, and can be fitted with a multitude of specialized sensors that collect highly accurate data. When equipped with LiDAR scanners, UAVs collect high-definition survey data economically from large and complex spaces. Other types of data can be captured using sensors such as thermal, gamma or multi-spectral that for instance, detect harmful, invisible gaseous leaks ahead of an inspection team. In disaster situations, they become a high-flying aid, giving emergency personnel a bird’s eye view of dangerous situations so they can plan their response. Equipped with cameras, UAVs take high-resolution photos and videos for inspection and surveillance while keeping the flight team safely at bay.

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While the uses for UAVs keep on growing, nothing has catapulted them into the limelight of mainstream workflow the way hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria did. All occurring in less than a month between August 31 and September 23, 2017, these four severe storms marched on the heels of one another producing catastrophic damage as they repeatedly gnawed their way through the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Houses were flattened, industries destroyed, infrastructure completely compromised, trees and heavy debris tossed into the streets like rag dolls and relentless flooding has caused sustained damage.

So, when it comes to natural disasters, where does UAV usage begin? Two of the top priorities during, and especially after any event of this type–are communication and power. Emergency responders need to be able to communicate in order to prioritize deployment of equipment and help to the areas in need of the most urgent assistance– especially in critical situations when response time can mean the difference between life and death.

In an effort to get communications back online, UAV teams have been sent into storm-ravaged areas to fly-high over cell towers and other power utilities to examine their condition and surroundings. Doing this ahead of repair team deployment, helps them in determining whether or not the towers are even safe to approach. UAVs can also be released into action quickly once storms subside and maneuvered to provide highly accurate visuals (photo and video) of damage. This information is invaluable in aiding repair teams plan what actions to take before debris is cleared and without having to physically scale the tower which can put them in danger. If flood waters exist–this structural pre-assessment facilitates repair teams in using their time more efficiently in developing their plan for scheduling equipment and crews while waiting for the waters to subside.

“Through advanced data acquisition, we’ve been able to assess the condition of cell tower sites with up-to-date information for streamlining repair activities” , explained Maser Consulting’s Chief Pilot and Director of UAV Services, Rob Dannenberg. “Once repairs have been made, the UAS crews can return to the site and access the quality of the repairs to give telecommunication clients confidence that their equipment is operating at an optimum level.” Maser Consulting P.A., a multidiscipline engineering firm with a large geospatial survey presence nationally, has developed an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) program for numerous clients requiring aerial inspection as part of ongoing workflows. Having this data as a baseline prior to the storms helped with damage assessment. Aside from utility inspection, the UAS division is also equipped with a variety of UAVs capable of supporting emergency management and recovery efforts, disaster response, tactical support for law enforcement and forensic LiDAR mapping.

But before anyone can launch an eye in the sky, professional UAV operators need to be authorized for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who oversees all aerial operations with strict guidelines, particularly where safety and security are concerned. As a note, this article is being written just as Hurricane Jose exited the US seaboard and Maria left Puerto Rico in its wake for the second time in less than three weeks, so we don’t know the full outcome. However, some of the damage information being reported is harrowing. A segment from Inside Towers (Friday September 22, 2017 Volume 5, Issue 186), insidetowers. com/cell-tower-news-fcc-urged-reject3-5-ghz-proposals/ (wireless tower industry magazine) stated: “More than 95 percent of the cell tower sites in Puerto Rico are out of service, according to the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System. All counties have greater than 75 percent of their cell sites out of service and 48 out of the 78 counties on the island have 100 percent of their cell sites out of service.” Public Works Magazine September 18, 2017 reported, “…the FAA approved 137 [UAV] flights related to Harvey and 132 Irma flights alone, some within minutes of receipt”.

FAA guidelines are complicated because they are loaded with public safety and privacy challenges. Regulations also vary by region and jurisdiction. But during this mass state of emergency, state and local officials have been working hard with each other and the federal government to resolve these regulations enough to enable UAVs to do what they do best–enabling stakeholders to make critical decisions while keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

The final results of implementing the full capabilities of UAV technology remains to be seen because the story is still unfolding. Foremost, all areas affected by these deadly storms need help in getting back online. But the bigger picture encompasses settling the regulatory issues for the successful integration of UAVs, the fastest growing field in aviation, into disaster response and workflow, particularly where critical infrastructure is concerned.

Another report in Civil + Structural Magazine (September 15, 2017), sited FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, cfm?newsId=22134 who recently addressed the InterDrone Conference in relation to UAV operations specifically regarding recovery from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, “Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system. 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.”

Maraliese Beveridge is the Senior Technical Writer and Public Relations Specialist for Maser Consulting P.A., a multidiscipline engineering firm with a network of offices nationwide. With more than 25 years of experience in journalism, she is a nationally published writer within the engineering industry. Her expertise is focused on transforming complex technical ideas into comprehensible articles on trending subjects.

A 1.658Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine HERE

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