Hurricanes - Typhoons

Drones in Houston would be a force multiplier for rescue efforts – so why is the FAA telling them to stay away?

Brett Velicovich

As I write this some of my closest friends and their families in Katy, Texas, the place I grew up, are being evacuated from their homes.  The Army Corps of Engineers is telling them the nearby Barker Reservoir will soon overflow, sending several feet of water directly into the path of their home.

The house I grew up in has flooded, cell phone coverage has been lost there. My Aunt is trapped and without flood insurance, if the water gets any higher in her home and she will have more to deal with than just some wet belongings.

Reports are stating this is just the beginning of the effects of Hurricane Harvey, with record rainfall, a place where hundreds of thousands of others once called home will soon have no place to call home, no school to take their children to in the short term and many months to rebuild. Hurricane Harvey is only getting worse, now is when we need American’s help the most. That help this time doesn’t have to be limited in the form of conventional resources.

Being a Houston native, I can’t stand to sit back and see volunteers being told that they can’t use every type of search and rescue technology available to help our fellow American’s in need. If it was your friends and family stranded wouldn’t you want the government to ensure they were using every single tool available to us in this day and age?

Volunteer pilots wanting to help shouldn’t be restricted any more than volunteer boat outfits are, like the great Americans of the Cajun Navy.

So why are first responders and private volunteers being told now that they can’t use drones to deliver supplies, survey the worst areas and destruction, identify victims still in need, pinpoint potential looters, and inform first responders in real-time of current environmental conditions?

Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a statement informing the public that they didn’t want drones in the airspace, stating that drone operators will be subject to fines if they interfere with emergency response operations. “Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate state and local laws.” The Daily Beast quoted a FEMA spokesperson stating that “Drones pose a potential danger to low-flying helicopters and their crews and can hinder the efforts of those who are trying to save live.”

To the untrained eye and those without much knowledge of current drone tech, this may seem like it makes sense. But the idea that drones can’t play a significant role in disaster relief operations is both archaic and a sign that the government still has yet to understand the full extent of what drones can really do, or at least refuses to take the time to fully integrate it.

The notion that consumer drones are going to easily run into helicopters and planes transiting to and from disaster areas has already been disproven. Even on the off chance a consumer drone did collide with a helicopter, which has yet to happen despite public misconceptions, the damage would likely be minimal. There have certainly been close calls from those, but this could be true from nearly any tech industry. While the potential for endangering other responders should definitely be addressed, it shouldn’t restrict the thousands of others operating within proper guidelines. I can’t imagine any professional drone operator wanting to fly even close to another aircraft.

Drones are not a burden, they are a force multiplier for first responders in these situations. As the weather gets better with Harvey, but the flooding gets worse, drones have the ability to help where rescuers physically can’t. Volunteer pilots wanting to help shouldn’t be restricted any more than volunteer boat outfits are like the great Americans of the Cajun Navy. There are millions of drone owners in the U.S., owners who have the types of drones that can fly thousands of feet in the air, can avoid obstacles, can travel a few miles away from the remote, and even carry supplies into hard to reach areas. We have an army of citizens who have a proficiency in drones, who want to volunteer with relief efforts right now, and provide support in the best way they can give.

Instead of banning drones out of pure laziness, the FAA should be identifying proper use boundaries so more lives can be saved using them. We should be making it a benefit to this effort, turning this volunteer drone force into something for good. Simply issuing blanket orders for no drone zones or Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) every time the FAA simply doesn’t want to have to deal with drones, is not providing proper humanitarian solutions to the aid efforts needed in this type of disaster or future ones.

Commercial drones can also help Harvey response teams quickly evaluate changes in the landscape, they can help build maps for victim locations, inform rebuilding efforts and identify and restore critical infrastructure like cell phone towers. They can deliver medical supplies and clean food and water where rescuers can’t. Drones can quickly help provide mobile electricity, cell phone coverage transmissions, and internet to areas who have lost it due to the hurricane. 

NASA recently flew a drone into the eye of a hurricane to collect data to predict the intensity and path. Even recently, drone pilots in Louisiana spent days flying over roads, highways, and neighborhoods, assisting citizens in confirming their loved ones were safe during flooding. A veteran pilot flying an off the shelf drone saved the life of a Carolina man trapped at his residence nearly underwater during Hurricane Matthew.

Yes, there are issues where drones have done more bad than good for relief efforts. That’s why we need the FAA to fix it – drones should be a major part of the discussion.  Just like the Red Cross creates areas to provide medical aid and provides volunteers for relief efforts, local drone teams can be created to do the same in a safe an organized manner.

The FAA should be identifying specific drone volunteer base stations and assigning organizers within the FAA’s apparatus to avoid previous mistakes. Teams could be divided by area and drone expertise including mapping, thermal imaging, photography, delivery, search and rescue. With correct communications and flight guidelines the FAA could still ensure safe measures are taken by all of those involved. Areas can be identified where helicopters are not operating, altitude restrictions can be put in place and limits can be put on the number of drones per area.

If our volunteer drone army had the opportunity to work together and know where to go to best use their expertise, these volunteers could provide many benefits to those still stuck in harmful conditions.

Just like boats driving through flooded streets, and volunteers coming in, communications between groups can help avoid disaster. They should provide guidelines for drone relief groups to operate safely within. Drone pilots in this case would have to be very careful in their efforts and they shouldn’t be flying where helicopters are located. If all volunteer drone teams were deployed and were allowed to operate within specific standards, this could be easily avoided. Instead, we have a ban on drones and people are going to fly them anyway without proper communications between the groups.

As I see the disturbing images and receive texts from my trapped friends and family, I can no longer sit back and watch this. In the coming days, I’m deploying to the area along with a global medical response team, and yes I’m bringing a fleet of drones. If other drone pilots are out there, we can always use your help. In the words of a Houston’s new hero, Sergeant Steve Perez, who passed away Tuesday trying to save others: we’ve “got work to do.”

Brett Velicovich is a U.S. Army veteran and former military intelligence analyst with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. His brand-new memoir is Drone Warrior.