This week, Hurricane Florence made its approach to the U.S. East Coast as a Category 2 hurricane and made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane. Most heavily impacting the Carolinas, the hurricane is expected to produce dangerous winds and catastrophic flash flooding. Not trailing far behind, Tropical Storm Isaac is passing over the Caribbean, and an unnamed tropical disturbance has been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico.
As the U.S. braces itself for this torrent of storm activity, first responders are readying to provide aid and relief with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also called drones. During the storm, drones can perform critical tasks, such as spotting people in need of urgent help and delivering medical supplies. After the storm, as residents cope with loss of power, closed roadways, and damaged property, drones can also assist. From the air, drones can aid in power line repairs and help assess roadway and property damage, leading to faster repairs.
Drones Aid Disaster Relief Efforts | Facing Rain, Wind, and Fire
In 2016, drones provided monumental emergency aid to areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expedited airspace authorizations and Part 107 waivers for drone operators with any legitimate reason to facilitate aid in the heavily impacted areas of Texas. Drones were deployed in several scenarios, including damage assessments of cell towers, roads, and bridges. Former FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, marked the response as a landmark for the drone industry.
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. And I believe the drone industry itself deserves a lot of credit for enabling this to happen.
—Michael Huerta, Former FAA Administrator
Not only can drones help during the recovery process after a hurricane; they’ve been used to provide aid after other types of natural disasters as well, like the tornado that struck Amherst County, Virginia during April 2018. A Drone Pilot Ground School scholarship recipient used his drone to gather aerial footage of the damage to help the County Sherff’s department with cleanup and reclamation. In another example, the Los Angeles Fire Department used drones to combat wildfires, primarily to assess property damage caused by the fires.
Unauthorized Drone Operations Delay Relief Efforts
There are many ways drones can provide aid in emergency situations, but they can also stifle aid delivery if flown without authorization. This lesson was painfully learned when unauthorized drone operators flew onto the scene of a recent California wildfire, prolonging firefighting efforts and endangering nearby civilians as they waited for the rogue drone to clear the sky. Unidentified drones delay firefighters from sending helicopters into the area to put out the fires and lead to further destruction.
The FAA has issued a warning, as Hurricane Florence nears, that drone users cannot fly their drones near the disaster area without authorization.
The FAA warns drone operators that they will be subject to significant fines that may exceed $20,000 and civil penalties if they interfere with emergency response operations. Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is not in place. Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference.
Drones can have a positive impact on disaster stricken areas, but the proper steps must be taken to obtain authorization.
The FAA Follows Protocol for Severe Weather Events
The FAA closely monitors forecasted hurricanes and severe weather events and prepares FAA facilities and equipment to withstand storm damage. They prepare and protect air traffic control facilities along the projected storm path so they can quickly resume operations after the hurricane passes. Enabling flights to resume quickly is critical to support disaster relief efforts; however, if airports are unable to reopen quickly, drones can continue to provide emergency relief services. Every drone, powered by battery and able to take off from almost anywhere, can reduce the number of manned aircraft using gasoline and other resources that become scarce during natural disasters.
Government agencies with an FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA) or flying under Part 107, as well as private sector Part 107 drone operators who want to support response and recovery operations, are strongly encouraged to coordinate their activities with the local incident commander responsible for the area in which they want to operate. Pilots without a Part 107 Certification or proper authorization should not fly their drone near the disaster area, or they could face criminal charges and fines.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has also setup a mandatory test for any drone pilots who plan on traveling to North Carolina for missions. It is a quick and easy requirement and can be complete over here on the North Carolina DOT website.
If drone operators need to fly in controlled airspace or a disaster TFR to support the response and recovery, operators must contact the FAA’s System Operations Support Center (SOSC) at 9-ATOR-HQ-SOSC@faa.gov.
Will you be in the path of Hurricane Florence or involved with relief efforts? Tell us on our public safety/emergency services community forum thread.