The reason was fairly straightforward: The FAA wanted rescuers and first responders to have as much free airspace as possible without a bunch of buzzing drones in the way. Even though the FAA made it easier for people to be certified to fly drones in 2016, the flight restriction demonstrated how drones are still not a top priority for search and rescue.
Now, after Hurricane Maria — the fourth major hurricane in a month — has finished it’s rampage, it’s a good time to start thinking about how rescue drones can help out more effectively when the next storm rolls through. Digital Trends spoke to a few drone experts who helped with disaster relief efforts during Hurricane Harvey about the help unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provided — and the hurdles they faced.
Drones to the rescue
Drones have some obvious advantages when it comes to disaster relief. Due to their small size, UAVs can fly in tighter spaces than helicopters, and hover closer to the action. They can also fly autonomously and carry out missions without the aid of a dedicated pilot. And let’s not forget that they’re also drastically cheaper, and are already owned by a relatively large portion of the population.
Drones have some obvious advantages when it comes to disaster relief.
Their lifesaving potential isn’t just speculation either. In a recent study of news reports, DJI, one of the global leaders in the drone market, concluded that drones were responsible for helping save one life per week.
There are even specific instances where drones have legitimately saved lives. In 2013, an injured driver stranded in a snowy area of Saskatchewan, Canada, was located by Canadian police using a Draganflyer X4-ES drone with an infrared camera after a helicopter search turned up nothing. In a separate case in 2015, the Auburn (Maine) Fire Department used a DJI Phantom 3 to drop down life vests to an 18-year-old man stranded in the middle of the river.
“There’s already tons of proof points. This is not theory,” UAV expert Mike Winn told Digital Trends in an interview. “Drones have already helped save lots of people by doing things like providing dropping ropes to people so they can secure a way across. They can provide proper resources during flood situations where there’s lots of water but no fresh water. Drones can drop things like fresh water and food.”
Winn is the CEO and founder of DroneDeploy, a drone mapping software company that allows people to send a drone to autonomously survey a predetermined area and then come back — all without any input from a pilot. DroneDeploy then turns the images your drone captures into a detailed 3D map. This software is generally used by farmers looking to survey acres of land, or construction managers looking to get a quick aerial check of building sites, but during this year’s brutal hurricane season, DroneDeploy got a chance to flex its muscle as a disaster-relief tool.
Bots vs. bureaucrats
Following Hurricane Harvey, a collective of drone experts known as Humanitarian Drones used DroneDeploy to map damaged areas for the National Guard and the city of Houston. The group, formed solely to help with Harvey relief efforts, was initially tasked with helping the American Red Cross with post-Harvey aid — but its efforts were hampered by an unnatural force that often wreaks havoc on innovative ideas: bureaucracy.
“Don’t attach yourself to any one organization. We learned that with the Red Cross,” Humanitarian Drones member Ty Audronis told Digital Trends. “I’m sure they’re a fantastic organization, but they’re really big, and with a big organization comes a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of opinions. So, while they were figuring out whether or not they wanted us to help them, we should’ve been out helping other people at the same time instead of waiting on them.”
“While they were figuring out whether or not they wanted us to help them, we should’ve been out helping other people.”
Using Winn’s DroneDeploy technology and a small fleet of DJI Phantom 4 Pro drones, the group was able to photograph an astonishing 1,650 homes in Rockport, Texas, and help local authorities apply for U.S. disaster assistance. Humanitarian Drones member Brian Scott told Bloomberg the group’s six drones had “essentially done in two-and-a-half days what it would have taken [the local government] two weeks to do on the ground.”
Clearly, these machines have a lot of lifesaving potential — but the legal and technological hurdles they face are myriad.
The FAA’s flight restrictions during Harvey served as bureaucratic roadblocks for numerous drone operators who wanted to help out immediately. In the first six days after Harvey hit Texas, the FAA issued just 43 authorizations to drone operators wishing to fly in and around areas in Texas deemed off limits. This is just a small fraction of the number of operators that applied.
“Now, you can imagine there are thousands of people in the Houston area, that have drones, that were ready to help to collect information,” Winn said. “To identify if there were property and houses where it looks like there may be people the National Guard should check on. This is what the drone industry wanted to offer that it couldn’t during Hurricane Harvey.”
“The FAA is working actively with drone groups and one of the things we’d like to see, for drones to be used effectively, is some real clear policies and processes around incidents like these emergencies on how a drone can be used,” Winn said. “With policies and technology, we can absolutely enable drones to be used in [emergency] situations.”
Not strong enough
Bureaucrats and policies may hamper drone rescue attempts, but something that also limits how much aid drones can provide is the technology they run on.
For starters, today’s drones just aren’t strong enough to physically rescue someone by airlift. Most drones on the market can only carry up to 10 pounds and are not sturdy enough to withstand extreme winds. “You can’t drop a rope down and pick someone up out of a flood that’s drowning with a drone. You’d need a really, really big drone,” Audronis said with a laugh.
Another factor that limits how much drones can help out during disasters is their inability to be located in the sky by other aircraft. When normal planes fly, they keep track of each other with an aviation technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast (ADS-B), which allows an aircraft to broadcast its location, speed, direction, and altitude to both other aircraft and U.S. Air Traffic Control. Those pings are then viewed on a map, ensuring that planes don’t fly into each other, and can quickly switch paths if a collision is imminent. Unfortunately, ADS-B transponders are currently absent from nearly every major drone on the market.
But these gripes may soon be things of the past. Norwegian drone maker Griff Aviation is making a fleet of drones capable of carrying upwards of 1,100 pounds — enough to lift a few people at one time. The company’s Griff Saviour almost seems made for hurricane rescue efforts, with its 440-pound lift capacity, water-resistant motors, and ability to deploy lifesaving equipment. The drone’s price tag — a whopping $250,000 – will likely make this bird prohibitively expensive for hobbyists and local governments alike.
On top of that, ADS-B location reporting tech might soon make its way into consumer UAVs. DJI’s Matrice 200 drone boasts the company’s own ADS-B transponder, called Airsense. If more companies follow suit, air traffic controllers would be able to track drones just like they track full-sized aircraft — and more importantly, help them avoid collisions during disaster relief efforts.
Good Samaritans; bad pilots
Before Humanitarian Drones had a single drone propellor spinning in the sky, Audronis was a normal citizen trapped at his home in Katy, Texas, with water rising up to his garage during Hurricane Harvey. Audronis saw many civilians drones flying in the face of the FAA’s restrictions during Harvey, and the former member of a Navy helicopter squadron was “quite frankly impressed and amazed there weren’t any accidents.” He was impressed, because not everyone with a drone is ready to navigate unfriendly skies to save lives.
There are thousands of people in the Houston area, that have drones, that were ready to help to collect information.”
“It’s extremely dangerous to let people in the air that are not educated,” Audronis says. “Civilian drone pilots don’t have their Part 107 from the FAA, so that means they have not demonstrated an ability to read airspace maps.” Humanitarian Drones enlisted the help of 10 volunteer drone pilots for mapping, and a Part 107 certification was one of the requirements, along with having their own DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone.
Part 107 is an aspect of the FAA’s unmanned aerial vehicle rules, and it stipulates a drone pilot must be at least 16 years of age and pass an FAA-approved aeronautical knowledge test. Those who apply are tested on information such as FAA flight restrictions, emergency responses, and which airspace is reserved for other (bigger) aircraft. Someone without that certification could easily fly into a rescue pilot’s trajectory, and not get out of the way until it’s too late, causing one — or both — aircraft to have to divert from its path to avoid a collision. Every second is as valuable as gold during rescue missions, and an uneducated good Samaritan could end up doing more harm than good.
The way forward
Clearly, we need a better system in place. Days after Harvey touched down in Texas, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta predicted “the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”
His prediction is already coming true. The American Red Cross recently announced it will fly a drone for the first time to assess damages as part of its new drone program for disasters. Similarly, the Air National Guard recently deployed military drones normally used for combat to help survey disaster areas. So while the ball might have been dropped as far as using UAVs to help out during the 2017 hurricane season, we’re already learning from our mistakes.
As soon as lawmakers and UAV manufacturers embrace the legitimate lifesaving potential of drones, the world will be a safer place.