Just returned from the Oso, WA, mudslides with the Field Innovation Team (FIT) but didn’t fly due to drone privacy concerns from Snohomish county. The upside is that we now have a template for manned/unmanned airspace deconfliction and can assist others in getting emergency certificates of authorization (COAs ).
We had requests from the county to fly small UAVs first thing on Thursday but it was Friday morning before we had three assets on site: two fixed wings (the Insitu ScanEagle, Precision Hawk Lancaster) and one rotorcraft (our Air Robot 100B). All of these were provided through our Roboticists Without Borders program at no cost to the county, with Insitu and Precision Hawk diverting their teams led by Kevin Cole and Pat Lohman respectively from their current jobs.
The reason for UAVs was straightforward. Responders such as WA-TF1 and WA-TF4 working on the rescue and recovery are at great risk from even a small slide or flash flooding as the river is continuously changing and ponding as the rains continue. The site itself is gooey mud and workers would have to be evacuated by helicopters hoisting them out. The canyon is narrow with trees and thus it is hard to get complete imagery from manned assets to predict landslides or manage the flooding. Geologists are gently swarming the edges of the slides setting up sensors but there is still some visual information missing. The ScanEagle and smaller Precision Hawk are world class for geospatial reconstruction and flooding. FIT had arranged for post processing of the AirRobot quadrotor imagery with new 3D reconstruction software from Autodesk. Chief Steve Mason, West Division, talks about the potential for UAVs in this article. We also got a shout out in general.
We worked with the Engineering Branch to determine flight paths and payloads to monitor the river flooding and to get 3cm per pixel higher resolution scans of the lower slide, the cliff face where geologists where having to rope themselves off to take measurements, and the “moonscape” area of the slide currently inaccessible by foot and thus the response teams couldn’t plan how to access. The team went with the Engineering Branch out to the site to refine the missions, identify launch and recovery areas, and how to maintain constant line of sight. Insitu had to pull out on the first day because we couldn’t find a satisfactory launch and recovery space within the Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) area, which is airspace over the incident.
The need for the manned helicopters to fly at a moments notice for emergency evacuation combined with regular manned missions and the narrow canyon presented some challenges. Manned helicopters are extremely vulnerable when flying at low altitudes, and even a large bird can take them down, see the article about a near miss. That’s why a TFR is set up and it automatically bans any aircraft including UAVs operating under hobbyist rules. Everything has to be coordinated through the Air Branch of the incident.
The Air Branch instead of just saying “no” to UAVs did the opposite—they welcomed us and did a fantastic job of coordination, with Bill Quistorf helping us create a jargon-free airspace deconfliction plan that should work for just about any incident. Randy Willis and Mark Jordan at the FAA stayed on call through out the weekend working on the emergency COAs for each platform. Chief Harper gave us a room in the Oso Community Center next to the Oso Fire Station to stage in and we were touched by the generosity and community spirit of everyone we met.
However, as the Operations Branch put in the formal request for the finalized missions and we got ready to fly late on Saturday, Snohomish County Emergency Management in Everett stepped in and blocked the request. After discussions on Sunday, the new Incident Commander Larry Nickey cancelled the missions based on concerns about privacy. The families were already worried about the media leaking photos and some were very contentious about drones. It was at that point that I recalled that Washington state has some of the most restrictive drone anti-privacy laws in the country, so there is already distrust in general. There was no way for the Engineering Branch to determine without flying the UAVs if the data would be sufficiently better than what they were getting now and would significantly increase the safety of the responders to justify overruling the families. This just wasn’t the time to go into the chain of custody of the imagery or that these were no different than imagery than from the unmanned systems; the families in their grief can’t hear and the EOC personnel shouldn’t be distracted continuing to push for activities that make the families uncomfortable. Larry made the tough, but understandable, call to cancel the missions, but left the door open for flights after victim recovery was complete and the activity was cleanup and reopening the area.
This was the first outing of Roboticists Without Borders with FIT. FIT is lead by Desi Matel-Anderson, former Chief Innovation Advisor for FEMA, Rich Serino, former FEMA Deputy Administrator, and Tamara Palmer, former Program Specialist with FEMA’s Recovery Directorate, to help communities get innovations that they may not be aware of or know how to access. FIT staff worked to understand the needs of local officials and connect us with Autodesk. Frank Sanborn served as the FIT coordinator for us and he and Stacy Noland get big shout outs for helping with everything from lugging gear and driving 120 miles on Sunday between Everett, the EOC, and the site to try to get the mission request unstuck.
We are disappointed that we can’t help out but our hearts and prayers go out to the families and all of the fine people working this very, very tough event.