When Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean and the US south-east coast last month, lives were lost, homes were destroyed and vital infrastructure was critically damaged. High winds and heavy rain left approximately 13 million Florida residents without power. Although drone pilots have grown notorious for flying too close to natural disasters in the past and grounding emergency services as a result, they have been working alongside local authorities in Florida to get things back online.
A small number of drone pilots have consistently managed to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Interrupting emergency efforts to put out forest fires from California to Colorado is one obvious example. It’s bad publicity for a burgeoning industry in which regulations are evolving all the time. But there’s plenty out there that proves drones are capable of having a much more positive impact on society.
In a hurricane situation, damaged infrastructure can slow down rescue efforts and make it difficult for emergency teams to get around and communicate with each other. Getting roads open and people reconnected is always a priority.
Ryan English is co-founder and CEO of FLYMOTION Unmanned Systems, a drone services company based in Florida. He leads a team of pilots that has been working flat out since hurricane Irma arrived in the Sunshine State. Speaking with Internet of Business, he paints a picture confirming that drone technology has been vital to getting infrastructure back online.
“Pretty much everything in society today relies on utilities and infrastructure, from power to data to networks,” he said. “We’re a critical piece of getting those systems back online, from damage assessments to insurance inspections.”
Pre-deploying and the challenge of predicting nature
The sole advantage of being Florida-based when the storms rolled in was that the devastation didn’t come as a surprise. As the remnants of Harvey moved further inland, Irma was tracked as it grew in stature and drifted across the Atlantic. To an extent, the FLYMOTION team was able to predict its path and pre-deploy teams appropriately.
“This was the largest pre-deployment of UAS (Unmanned aerial systems) in response to a natural disaster, which is monumental,” said English. 22 separate FLYMOTION teams were deployed in locations across Florida as the state braced for impact.
But even then, the hurricane was unpredictable. “In any kind of disaster situation, you can pre-plan as much as you want but it’s an unknown situation. When Irma was on the way it was going from a category three storm to a four and a five, so the potential impact and the way it was moving was unknown.”
650 missions and counting
The use of drones allowed FLYMOTION’s inspection teams to work quickly and conduct more than 500 missions in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. The number is increasing daily and now stands at over 650.
Interestingly, these missions aren’t only being carried out by the rugged, weather-proof drones you might envisage. Instead, FLYMOTION has been utilizing DJI’s entire product catalogue, including the family-friendly drones launched by the industry’s leading manufacturer with beginners in mind.
These range from the $500 palm-sized Spark right up to the Hollywood-grade Inspire 2. Even DJI’s consumer-focused drones have obstacle avoidance, autonomous flight modes and high definition cameras, so this variety has allowed English and his team to be versatile and adapt to the mission at hand.
And what of the response to the aerial response? Will the reputation of drone pilots flying in disaster zones improve now that their value has been proven?
English certainly thinks so. “I think Hurricane Harvey and Irma have really changed the viewpoint in a positive way. Undoubtedly, drones expedited the recovery efforts in many ways. We’ve been able to showcase the technology and prove how well it can work.”
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A turning point in the perception of drones?
Speaking with Internet of Business, corporate communication director at DJI, Adam Lisberg, agreed that this was the first major disaster on US soil in which drones could be effectively deployed.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were a major turning point for how drones have been able to assist with rescue and recovery operations following a disaster,” he said. “Thanks to the increasingly wide deployment of drones around the country, as well as the Part 107 rules that allow professional drone pilots to be certified relatively easily, these were the first major disasters in America where drones could play a key role in the response.”
As highlighted by FLYMOTION’s ability to pre-deploy teams across the state, drones have proven to be a valuable, versatile tool that can be up in the air in no time at all. “Drones allow professionals to do their tasks safer, faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost, by providing a convenient aerial perspective and the ability to quickly gather aerial data so it can be processed and analyzed,” said Lisberg.
“In a rescue situation, they allow crews to assess damage and look for survivors from the sky far more easily than from land or water,” he added.
Aside from being the original manufacturer for the majority of aerial hardware deployed in the aftermath of hurricane Irma, DJI didn’t play a direct role in the response. Instead, the company supported its partners on the ground, and “provided equipment to nine established search-and-rescue organizations we’ve worked with before, to help them as they responded to immediate rescue and recovery needs.”
“This included almost 200 batteries, since finding reliable power sources to recharge batteries quickly became one of their top priorities. We also provided immediate technical assistance for team members who needed help keeping their drones flying in difficult conditions.”
FLYMOTION’s Ryan English predicts many more months of recovery efforts ahead in Florida. Just as drone deliveries are being pioneered by companies intent on flying medical supplies from one location to another, public opinion may be further swayed by their benefits in the direst of circumstances.