AUVSI chapter report: Hurricane Irma reveals strengths and weaknesses of UAS involvement
Hurricane Irma clobbered a good portion of Florida on Sept. 10, further elevating the role of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in disaster response and recovery operations. Soon after the storm had passed, drones quickly took to the air to provide situational awareness for first responders and assess damage to critical infrastructure providers.
However, planning for UAS operations started well before irma ever made landfall. A statewide UAS safety briefing web conference coordinated by the AUVSI Florida Peninsula Chapter (FPC) was held Saturday, Sept. 9.
Hosted by Brent Klavon and Christopher Todd of AUVSI’s FPC, and featuring special guest David Merrick, Director of the Florida State University Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program, the purpose of the briefing was to advise remote pilots on recommended safety practices immediately after the landfall of the hurricane. Remote pilots from around the state participated in the call.
The next day, Irma struck Florida.
FSU's EMHS program provided significant UAS support to the state of Florida during the Hurricane Irma response. Faculty, staff and students worked in the state's Air Operations Branch as UAS coordinators and mission coordinators. Also supporting the Air Branch was Space Florida, which, as a member of the State Emergency Response Team, provided UAS expert Brent Klavon to the State Emergency Operations Center.
“Irma proved that with proper coordination, manned and unmanned aircraft can safely operate in the same airspace, but there’s more that can be done,” says Klavon, who also serves as president of AUVSI’s Florida Peninsula Chapter. “Geographically dispersed drone capability would greatly improve the speed of understanding the disaster problem. Ideally, a cadre of vetted, credentialed, and accessible operators would be made available to emergency managers for coordinated and approved tasking.”
Prior to landfall, a portion of the EMHS UAS team deployed with Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8. They redeployed to Putnam County to search and clear flooded areas after the storm. Upon completing that mission, the team then deployed to Collier County, where they conducted damage assessment flights on critical infrastructure and key facilities. These assessments helped the county officials understand the scope and scale of the damage in both metropolitan and rural areas. The FSU EMHS team was joined by their partners from Texas A&M's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, conducting over 250 individual sorties in five days throughout the state.
Meanwhile in South Florida, AUVSI-FPC members like Miami-based Airborne Response, Ft. Myers-based FL Drone Supply, and Naples-based Angel Eyes UAV rapidly launched UAS via prepositioned flight teams to provide aerial reconnaissance, document infrastructure damage to power grids, and capture photos and video that were broadcast around the globe. This included flying disaster response missions in class B, C and D controlled airspace as authorized by the company’s Federal Aviation Administration operational waivers and airspace certificates of uathorizations (COAs). Airborne Response even flew nighttime missions in the busy airspace.
“We had flight teams prepositioned on both Florida coasts ready to get eyes up as soon as the weather allowed,” says Christopher Todd, founder and president of Airborne Response and director of AUVSI’s Miami Satellite Chapter. “We flexed staff from as far away as Vancouver, Canada, to support our response.”
Todd says the volume and types of missions flown by Airborne Response and other AUVSI member companies during the preparedness, response, and recovery phases of IRMA clearly shown the promise of UAS in emergency management. Missions included damage assessment, infrastructure documentation, debris management, shoreline erosion analysis, and newsgathering — including capturing video footage that was broadcast around the world across multiple media channels.
He believes that these mission sets are only the beginning for UAS in response to significant incidents. However, there is still a long way to go to develop truly closed-loop solutions for end users.
“The amount of operational learning that has transpired during this UAS response effort has been remarkable,” Todd says. “We garnered additional knowledge with each mission that has helped us identify gaps while also road mapping new solutions that will better combat the myriad of challenges associated with disaster response.”
“We have witnessed a gradual escalation of UAS operations with each of the last four significant hurricanes to strike the U.S. and the Caribbean,” says FSU’s Merrick. “Hurricane Irma was the bellwether event that will help define the roll of drones in disaster response moving into 2018 and beyond.”
Stephen Myers, founder of Angel Eyes UAV, says the company is continuing its disaster response efforts, and deployed to Puerto Rico to support recovery efforts from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Below: Florida State University Emergency Management and Homeland Security program faculty member Jarrett Broder flies a damage assessment mission in Collier County in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Photo: David Merrick