Photo: Aransas Pass Police Department
Police, fire departments and other emergency response groups across the globe have incorporated drones into their search and rescue mission processes. They are playing an increasingly important role, giving news media, authorities and local citizens a birds-eye view of the landscape in natural disasters, including hurricanes and the flooding aftermath.
In late August, as Hurricane Harvey flooded Aransas Pass, TX, leaving destruction in its wake, the Aransas Pass Police Department released several minutes of drone footage on its social media channels. According to local media, after viewing the damage to the area in the drone footage, city managers could more accurately assess the status of power lines, resulting in an announcement that electricity would be down for at least three to four weeks. The video also immediately showed that the storm destroyed the only water tower in town.
Nearby in McAllen, TX, a two-man drone operating team from the McAllen ISD Police Department assisted with hurricane relief efforts along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The team worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with search-and-rescue efforts as well as conducting damage assessments, according to news reports. The McAllen ISD police became certified in the use of drones last spring.
Photo: Twitter @TxDOT
Federal officials also called in out-of-state task forces, which included two San Francisco Bay Area water rescue teams, from Menlo Park and Oakland, CA. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement that the team took five vehicles, 10 boats and three drones with them to Texas.
Houston Traffic Cams: The Eyes of Texas
In addition to the coastal cities, Houston officials used drone footage to help monitor neighborhoods, freeways and traffic flow after the storm. The city was inundated with approximately 9 trillion gallons of water in two days according to the Washington Post, causing “an unprecedented flooding disaster affecting a massive amount of people.” In Houston’s Harris County, authorities asked stranded people to hang sheets or towels from their homes, so rescuers doing drone and helicopter surveillance could spot them more easily, according to CNN.
Photo: TxDOT/Houston TranStar
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) used drone and highway surveillance camera images on its Twitter feed to alert drivers of flooding hazards on freeways, underpasses and thoroughfares in the Houston area. TxDOT used its cameras to provide an interactive, real-time flood map that showed live images and road and freeway closures around the city’s main artery, the Houston Loop. It made the data available on its website, www.drivetexas.org.
Drone Pros Only
While commercial drones were useful during Hurricane Harvey, privately operated drones were not as welcome in the stormy skies. Local officials were reporting that civilian drones posed an extreme risk to crews on rescue missions.
Photo: Drone footage of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, TX, via Kelsey Meyers
The FAA issued a fairly severe warning for non-commercial drone usage after the storm, noting that unauthorized drone users might be subject to fines if they interfered 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,” the FAA said in a public statement. Some cities affected by Hurricane Harvey, including areas near Corpus Christi, put a TFR for civilian drones in effect immediately after the storm hit landfall.
Drones vs. Disasters
The use of drones in search and rescue (SAR) operations such as those in Hurricane Harvey has pros and cons. But the benefits and ability to save lives, especially in high-risk, potentially dangerous regions across the globe, more often outweigh potential downfalls. Some of the benefits of deploying drones for SAR missions (in comparison to solely using helicopters for these missions) include:
- Decrease in operational expenses
- Low environmental impact since most drones use a small amount of fuel (and many use no fuel at all)
- Low amount of greenhouse gas emissions
- Low maintenance costs
- Low amount of energy consumption
- Increase in safety since drones don’t require humans to operate them.
For regions that are becoming increasingly affected by natural disasters, the ability of drones to take camera and video footage in potentially dangerous areas, without human supervision, provides a valuable mechanism to address public safety and help with evacuations.