EVAC and the Drones

Drones have been an often-debated form of surveillance in the past few years as their availability and use have become more ubiquitous. But in the days following the massive rainfalls in Texas (the National Weather Service in Fort Worth tweeted that over 35 trillion gallons had already fallen by May 29), emergency workers faced with washed out roads started to consider alternative forms of search and rescue technology.

The challenges in Texas are many to traditional methods of search and rescue. Will Boettner, state spokesman for a search and rescue operation in Austin told NPR's John Burnett: “The debris fields and the piles of debris that have accumulated, they're very tall — some of them are 25 to 30 feet tall. They're large enough that you could easily hide in them. Therefore they're also large enough that there could be victims within them.”

CBS News reported that searchers from Texas U&M University – Corpus Christi started experimenting with drone search capabilities with permission from the FAA. “The drones can fly low over the debris field and send back live video,” said CBS News. “If they spot something out of the ordinary, a team of searchers go in on foot or by boat. Some of the drones use thermal imagery to detect body heat - and even decaying biomass.”

“We’re used to conducting testing in a controlled environment. In this case we’re in a chaotic environment,” Jerry Hendrix, chief engineer at the Lone Star UAS Center at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, told the Washington Post. “We’re still trying to understand and assess where drones can be used in the search and rescue and how to coordinate with the manned operations.”

The Washington Post reported that Hendrix and an eight-person team were operating an AscTec Falcon eight-propeller drone (suited for heavy winds) along the Blanco River.

According to the Post, the use of drones marks a change from usual FAA policy. “Had the storms struck a couple weeks ago, Hendrix’s group likely wouldn’t have been able to assist,” according to the article. “But last Thursday the FAA loosened the rules for its drone test sites, giving blanket approval for the test sites to fly drones at or below 200 feet. Hendrix said he’d previously have to wait up to 60 days to receive FAA approval to fly a mission. He could ask for emergency approval, but even that would take three or four days.”

 

For more information on the use of drones in the Texas flooding, visit:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/drones-aid-search-for-texas-oklahoma-flood-victims/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2015/05/29/drone-operators-assist-search-and-rescue-efforts-after-devastating-floods-in-texas/

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/29/410606075/death-toll-in-southern-plains-flooding-rises-to-25

https://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsId=82947