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Trapped Tornado Victims May Be Found 'Minutes After a Storm' With Aid of Drones

Drones have the possibility of improving forecasts, predicting storm patterns and making the study of severe weather safer for scientists and meteorologists. It turns out, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), known as drones, can help save lives after storms, too.

Jamey Jacob, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Oklahoma State University, is working on further developing ways that UAS can aid first responders after disaster strikes.

For areas dense with structures, UAS could make search and rescue an easier process.

Jacob used the devastating 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, EF5 tornado as an example of how drones could have saved lives.

"When it hit the elementary school, they had a lot of issues determining where the survivors were at," he said. "The news helicopters that flew overhead, they had to wave them off because they were too noisy. They couldn't even hear the cries of the children beneath the rubble."

Due to their smaller nature, drones can observe areas without obstructing the first responder's ability to hear cries for help.

As way to save more lives and react quicker after major destruction, Jacob said that the UAS could be used for spotting important assets like fire hydrants and tornado shelters, especially ones that were destroyed post-storm.

"Having something that could be relatively close, relatively quiet, that the first responders could control with infrared cameras on board to help them search for survivors [would be an asset to emergency personnel]," Jacob said.

The UAS would be able to fly in areas from 1 to 10 square miles for hours at a time. Despite the benefits, there are still aspects that need to be researched.

One question that still remains is how to increase the autonomy of the system while operating within FAA guidelines and maintaining line of sight so that a necessary responder wouldn't have to, as Jacob puts it, "babysit" the drone while it flies over the damage.

Currently, the FAA requires an operator to be within half a mile of a UAS.

However, there are still questions as to who would be able to operate the drones.

Jacob hopes that eventually a first responder would be able to have drones ready to launch within minutes after a storm. With cameras that would relay real-time feeds back to the ground, responders would then be able to figure out which areas to target first.

Further down the line as recovery begins, there is a chance that drones could prove useful to assess swiftly properties and provide a first look to insurance adjusters.

Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute, sees the potential for drones to help within the insurance industry.

"I can see how it would save a lot of time cost for insurers who normally can't get into an area because it's too dangerous," she said. "Or once they are allowed in, the difficulties in navigating through areas because of debris."

Stephen Brown is the owner and president of Brown Claims Management Group, which has been doing research for nearly a year on the use of UAS for insurance adjusters after storms create dangerous conditions.

He shares similar thoughts on how UAS could give adjusters access to properties or areas that could be dangerous but has also come across some drawbacks.

"My experience has been that even a small amount of wind, for example, can result in difficulty flying the unit in a safe manner and presents challenges to obtaining the kind of high quality video and still shots that an adjuster would want to properly document an insurance claim," he said.

In addition, Brown does not diminish the need for a human eye.

"I would say that more often than not a well-used drone can get you the photographic evidence needed to properly evaluate most claims," he said. "But it will never, in my opinion, completely replace the skill of the experienced [human] claims adjuster."