In the aftermath of two major hurricanes, drones were deployed in unprecedented numbers to search for victims, assess critical infrastructure, and support live television coverage. Successful deployments cemented a perception of drones as tools for public benefit.
Not long after Hurricane Irma devastated the Florida Keys and moved north, bringing torrential rain, damaging winds, and flooding to communities across the panhandle and neighboring states, drones took to the skies to deliver the first aerial images. In at least one case, the drone pilots did not exactly wait until the storm had passed.
“We actually flew in the eye,” recalled Ben Kroll of SkyFire Consulting, a drone services company hired by The Weather Channel to accompany Jim Cantore (who is a fan of robotics, and served as master of ceremonies at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Xponential 2017 conference in Dallas) for live coverage of Hurricane Irma’s U.S. landfall on Sept. 10.
“It got calm really fast,” recalled Kroll, a drone pilot and certificated flight instructor who partnered with Matt Sloane to launch the company hired by CBS for filming in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Until the eye of the storm passed and the wind returned, “it was just like flying on a normal, calm day.”
Like Harvey before it, Irma drew a mix of drone amateurs and drone professionals, despite FAA-imposed flight restrictions designed to keep the skies clear for authorized emergency responders. But the worst fears of experts who worried that amateurs operating illegally would interfere with rescue and recovery efforts were not realized. Instead, the two storms may have marked a turning point.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in remarks delivered at the InterDrone conference in Las Vegas, noted that drones had made a difference.
“Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” Huerta said. “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.”
Florida Power and Light fielded 49 drone teams across the state, and had high praise for the FAA’s fast response to requests for authorization, along with the ability of drone crews to provide a detailed look at otherwise inaccessible elements of the badly damaged infrastructure.
Ryan English, CEO of the Tampa, Florida, drone services firm FLYMOTION, said his company deployed 18 teams across the state to assist. FLYMOTION, hired by utility and infrastructure clients English said he could not disclose, was another of the 137 applicants issued emergency authorization by the FAA to use drones for infrastructure damage assessment.
“I think this is something that is monumental,” English said of the storm response, noting that pre-deployment on a large scale made much of the critical work possible. English spoke to AOPA by phone on Sept. 14 from his mobile command center in the Fort Lauderdale area, where he coordinated his teams spread across the state conducting flights at key locations.
English said many of those teams had to work for days before basic necessities including food and fuel became available, and getting spare parts and supplies to his field teams remained an issue days after the storm had passed. Maintaining a secure operational area as storm survivors and wildlife began to roam the area, and dealing with ongoing hazards such as flooding and the absence of electric power, made the mission a very significant challenge despite all the preparation.
“The first 48 hours of course were very challenging and very emotional I think for everyone involved,” English said.
Both English and Kroll joined the chorus praising the FAA for opening the otherwise-restricted airspace to drone pilots working for public agencies and utility companies struggling to restore power to millions.
Kroll and his team had by Sept. 15 debriefed and begun to prepare for the next devastating storm. Among the takeaways Kroll shared in an email: Next time, they may risk the thermal and zoom cameras, which were not packed in consideration of their high cost and high sensitivity to damage from water. Another takeaway was to spend more time and effort ahead of a major event coordinating and planning with local authorities, which might allow a television camera crew more access to affected areas.
“Trying to coordinate this during the storm does not work,” Kroll noted.
And, while portable generators are very capable of charging batteries, they can’t be used on the run, and the team had to reposition frequently. Kroll said the power outlets tapping the vehicle electrical system could not deliver the amps needed to charge drone batteries.
“Next time we’ll have a heavier duty inverter and bring more batteries,” Kroll wrote.
The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, led by disaster robotics expert Robin Murphy, deployed for both hurricanes, and logged record-setting numbers for flights completed and targets surveyed, Murphy noted in a blog post that details two very busy weeks in the field. Their missions included search and rescue, finding and reporting a structure fire that had not been previously reported, and surveying a huge swath of infrastructure. Murphy also detailed another set of lessons learned.
While much of Florida (with the notable exception of the lower Keys) escaped the full fury of Hurricane Irma, many Caribbean islands were not so lucky. A drone pilot in Tortola, capital of the British Virgin Islands, was among the first to document the devastation there, one of a few such videos picked up by international media that called attention to communities where help was desperately needed.