When disaster strikes, civilian drone pilots swoop in

By Jared Shelly

Homes burned. Offices reduced to rubble. Restaurants, schools, senior living facilities, wineries — the Tubbs wildfire did not discriminate in its path of destruction in Northern California.

The 2017 disaster drew first responders, from police officers to firefighters to humanitarian aid workers. But a new type of responder came too — a fleet of drone pilots. Romeo Durscher was among that group, deployed by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to take overhead images of the damage.

“It looked like a war zone,” said Durscher, the director of public safety integration at DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer. “Cars were left in the middle of road with the doors still open. I saw pieces of toys that survived the fire. Just a few hours ago there was life and now everything is gone.”

Drone pilots like Durscher have become a vital part of disaster relief, from the California wildfires to Hurricane Michael, which recently battered the Southeast and East Coast. What started with well-meaning civilian drone owners offering their services has blossomed into a continually maturing disaster response capability. Sometimes they’re commercial drone pilots like Durscher who work hand-in-hand with law enforcement. Other times, law enforcement has drone pilots of their own. In any case, they’re incredibly valuable in the aftermath of a natural disaster, locating people in need of rescue, helping to determine the accessibility of roadways, and using thermal cameras to see if fires are still smoldering. DJI estimates the total number of people rescued from peril by drones globally has reached at least 133.

Battalion Chief Tom Calvert of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District says drones give him a huge advantage over tools his department utilized in the past.

“It’s all about information. I need to know what’s happening before I have my guys go in and stop what’s happening,” said Calvert. “That’s where we get the biggest value with the drones. It gives you a perspective on an emergency that we’ve never had before.”

Just Bought a Drone? Stay Home

Drone operators were a major part of the rescue and cleanup efforts after Hurricane Harvey battered Texas in 2017, helping locals, insurance companies and law enforcement assess the damage. But it was far from smooth sailing says Douglas Spotted Eagle, director of education programming at UAV training organization Sundance Media Group.

“You have guys that bought a drone at Best Buy, that want to contribute to their community but don’t know how to take orders, don’t know basic radio communication skills and don’t have basic emergency preparedness skills,” he said.

That’s when drone pilots can become a burden — or even need rescuing themselves. Tracy Lamb, vice president of regulatory and safety affairs & chief pilot of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says it’s best for drone pilots to reach out to law enforcement before a disaster strikes. That way they’ll be on the short list if pilots are needed.

“We strongly urge drone operators that are licensed to contact their incident commander or local fire department before they take their drone and try to help,” she said. “You could be stopping someone else from getting rescued — and that could lead to loss of life or loss of your own life.”

An Autonomous Future?

Drone operations for disaster response seem to be getting more mature by the day. FEMA and the FAA, for example, posted more explicit advisories on social media explaining that if drone enthusiasts don’t have proper credentials or experience — don’t come to the site. Disaster areas tend to have a de facto air traffic controller for further control. Some even deployed Aeroscope, a DJI technology system that shows the location, flight path and serial numbers of all drones in the area. In all situations, operators need to adhere to the Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 regulations for small drones — flying below 400 feet, not exceeding 100 miles per hour and only flying during the day. Local law enforcement may also apply for a certification of authorization (COA) which can include waivers for things like nighttime operation.

Calvert from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District sees a future where his department has autonomous drones that instantly head to the scene of an emergency. That way, first responders will have accurate information before they even arrive at the scene.

“Once we know what’s really going on, we can put people to task — rather than arriving on scene and gathering information using our human eyes only,” he said. “Within a five-year time period, you’re going to see fully autonomous systems — smart machines doing smart work — giving us really smart data that we need to make tough decisions.”


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