Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

'A landmark in the evolution of drone usage'

How Hurricane Harvey marked a turning point for aerial robots and offered critical insight for the proposed NFPA 2400

BY JESSE ROMAN

As soon as the skies cleared above Houston, a small army of unmanned aerial robots took flight above the city’s deluged streets to assess the impact of Hurricane Harvey’s assault.

Their missions were as varied as the groups that launched them. Oil and gas companies used drones to peer in at hard-to-reach flooded facilities and fuel tanks. Insurance companies deployed the robots by the hundreds to swiftly inspect damaged properties, exponentially speeding up the claims process. Union-Pacific flew drones to inspect flooded rail yards and miles of track. State agencies used drones to take stock of damage to roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure like water treatment facilities. Local, state, and federal emergency responders also deployed drones, as did dozens of ad hoc rescue volunteers and relief organizations, to search for storm victims, map flooded areas, test for dangerous pollutants in the water, and help crews navigate through a downtown transformed by 50 inches of rain in just a few days.

Aerial drone photo of a flooded water pump station in Houston Aerial drone photo of flooded Interstate 10 near Houston

Eye in the Sky The Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas assisted responders on the ground following Hurricane Harvey. Photos taken by deployed drones include, left assessing damage to a water pump station; and helping authorities determine whether to reopen Interstate 10 near Houston. Photograph: Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country,” Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta said at a conference on September 6, a few days into the recovery efforts. He called the role the robots played in the hurricane response “transformative.”

The FAA tightly restricts airspace during a disaster to better coordinate aircraft and prioritize emergency response. After the storm, it issued at least 137 special permits for unmanned flight operations to various groups involved in response and recovery around greater Houston, according to an FAA spokesperson. While unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, have long proved their worth in various tasks, Harvey is perhaps the first time the robots have been deployed for such varied purposes all at once on such a grand scale.

“After all this, after the hundreds and thousands of flights, this event proves that using drones in emergency response can be done safely, effectively, and can do a lot of good,” said Coitt Kessler, leader of the Austin (Texas) Fire Department’s Robotics Emergency Deployment Team. “It was also a great reminder of how much we don’t know and still need to learn and improve.”

MANY NEEDS, MANY USES

Kessler, a member of the technical committee for the proposed NFPA 2400, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Used for Public Safety Operations, has a better sense than most of what went right and what didn’t during the first stages of drone deployment in Houston postHarvey. For four days, from August 30 to September 2, he worked at the Texas Air Operations Center in Austin, as the state’s first-ever UAS coordinator—a position invented pretty much on the fly as Harvey bore down on the Gulf Coast.

Members of the Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas brief the National Guard on the DJI M210 drone in the foreground used to fly recovery missions in Harvey's Aftermath

Members of the Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas brief the National Guard on the DJI M210 drone in the foreground used to fly recovery missions in Harvey's aftermath. Photograph: Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas

The night of August 29, as Kessler packed to travel to Houston to man a boat rescue team, the Texas Division of Emergency Management called to tell him they had other plans. The next morning, Kessler reported to the air operations center to find it bustling with senior military command, FAA officials, and state and federal emergency coordinators, most of whom were concerned with various manned aircraft recovery missions. Brett Dixon, the manned air coordinator for Texas Task Force 1, called Kessler over. “He told me, ‘I’m getting calls left and right for requests to fly drones. I don’t know anything about drones. Can you handle it?’” Kessler said.

He knew he was entering uncharted territory. “There are literally no documents or anything that lays out or even officially mentions a job called a UAS coordinator, but they told me I was it,” he recalled. He set up shop at a long table with a laptop, cell phone, and notebook and got to work.

He began fielding dozens of calls from people requesting permission to fly, as well as calls from response teams on the ground looking for drone assistance. Kessler set up a Google Maps document and Excel spreadsheet to track the various unmanned operations. Seated beside him were four FAA officials who helped with coordination between the manned and unmanned flights. Kessler admitted afterward that much of it was a seat-of-the-pants effort. “It was pretty rudimentary—I just knew air operations is communications, so the best I can do is make sure the people operating were communicating,” he said. “I would get a call passed to me, and I’d answer their questions and make sure there were no conflicts with manned operations.” Many of the drone operations Kessler saw were for recon—“just flying over and getting eyes on different areas that are hard to reach because of the water,” he said.

Drone operators look at a screen showing aerial footage from a drone

 

Man tracking all the drones in the air at the Texas Air Operation Center

Drone operators in the Houston area, including Garret Bryl (top center), were coordinated by Coitt Kessler (below), working in the Texas Air Operations Center in Austin. Kessler ensured drone missions were safe to fly without interfering with manned flights. Photograph: Top, Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas; bottom, Coitt Kessler

One of those pilots on the ground communicating with Kessler was firefighter Garret Bryl, who deployed to Houston as part of the North Texas UAS Response Team. When he arrived just after the storm, Bryl said he was prepared for anything and was anticipating flying emergency rescue missions to save stranded victims. But the team takes its command from local emergency officials, who insisted that levees were the most immediate priority.

“We said, ‘we are here to help people and you guys know better than us what’s needed,’” he said. “Once we got up in the air, I realized ‘OK, this is really important—if this thing fails, thousands of people will be impacted.’”

Bryl flew his drone across critical sections of levee, zooming down within feet and beaming back high-definition video to an emergency operations center. The footage revealed that parts of the levee were beginning to degrade, soften, and crack, he said, a fact missed by an earlier manned helicopter mission shooting video from much higher up.

In addition to getting eyes on critical infrastructure, Bryl and his fellow team members used drones to get a closer look at potential threats, like a string of ominous blue barrels seen floating down a street, or to inspect gas lines suspected of dangerous leaks. In other flights above the city “we found buildings that were starting to collapse with people still in them. We found businesses with holes in the ceiling still trying to operate,” Bryl said. In each case, the people were evacuated.

Bryl also flew drone missions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create what’s called an orthomosaic—a very large high-resolution image of the landscape below that features incredible detail. “We fly over an area and the drone takes dozens of high-resolution images that slightly overlap, and when we’re done we load them into software that seams all the pixels together into one big image,” Bryl explained. “Because the photos are taken at such a low altitude, you can zoom in so close you can see a stick on a patio. You can’t do that with a plane; you can just get the big picture. With a mosaic you can get the big picture and the detailed picture.”

Drones also proved useful in other ways. Kessler said he heard of rescue boats using drones as an eye in the sky to help navigate through the confusing web of canals that Harvey had created throughout greater Houston. At one point, a team member on the ground suggested to Kessler that they could use drones with flood lights to illuminate the dark night streets, where rescuers were working around the clock in chest-high water with no street lights to aid them.

In addition to these official drone missions, Kessler estimates there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unofficial unmanned flights made in the aftermath of Harvey for myriad purposes—from hobbyists getting photos for their Instagram accounts to legitimate public safety operations missions that were not reported due to a lack of understanding of the rules. Despite the numerous unauthorized flights, Kessler said he never heard of any near misses or serious conflicts from rogue drones. At least several media accounts, however, reported on the frustrations of first responders who encountered civilian operators flying drones.

LESSONS FOR NFPA 2400

As much as Harvey proved drones’ worth to emergency response, the experience also clearly showed how far we are still from fully incorporating them to their full potential, Kessler said.

For one, many drones struggled to function during the height of the search and rescue phase of the mission, primarily because the equipment isn’t yet rugged enough to withstand the high winds and rains present during or immediately after a hurricane, he said. That’s partly due to the lack of officially accepted equipment and pilot standards tailored to emergency response—something NFPA is hoping to fix with the release of NFPA 2400.

Also, the logistical infrastructure to support widespread and complex drone operations isn’t where it needs to be yet. Houston Fire Department drone pilot Patrick Hagan told Bloomberg News that he had a “heart-stopping” moment when he heard an approaching police helicopter as he was flying his quadcopter drone over a flooded highway. Unsure where the chopper was or where it was going, he raced to lower his drone and avoid a collision. The lack of a formal air traffic control system for drones coupled with emergency aircraft flying low during recovery efforts “doesn’t leave a lot of room for error,” he told the news agency. Many drones still aren’t equipped with tracking beacons to alert the FAA or other aircraft of their presence.

That Kessler was the only official coordinating the state’s entire drone emergency operations effort—a job that didn’t even exist before the hurricane—speaks volumes about how far we are from fully absorbing drones as resources into the official emergency response apparatus. That he was able to more or less handle it by himself is also telling.

“I was sitting in the operations center thinking, ‘Why aren’t more people calling for drone assistance? I know drones can do a lot more than what we’re being asked to do,’” he said. “To me, it shows how much more we need to educate our decision makers about what these things can and can’t do.”

As equipment continues to improve, as department leaders become more knowledgeable about the capabilities of the technology, and as industry standards like NFPA 2400 are developed and adopted, Kessler has no doubt that drones will usher in a new era of disaster response. Very soon, “the number of unmanned aircraft out there is going to dwarf the manned resources, and as that happens the UAS coordinator is going to be a very busy and very important position,” he said. “I was doing this with Google Maps and an Excel spreadsheet. I know we can and will do better than that. But it’s going to be fun to look back at all of this in two years when ‘UAS coordinator’ is some well-known, important job.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Public Safety UAS Response Team of North Texas