Texas Floods: How small UAVs have been used at 9 floods in 6 countries. Don’t forget about UMVs!

Note: this is a long blog with sections on best practices, where SUAS have been used (and for what missions), the flood of data that interferes with making the most of UAS data and how computer vision can help, and unmanned marine vehicles.

CRASAR is standing by to assist with the flooding in Texas with small unmanned aerial systems (UAS/UAV) and unmanned marine vehicles. Johnny Cash’s song “How High The Water Momma” comes to mind. We’ve been working with floods since 2005 and in July offered a class on flying for floods.

The rain is still too heavy to fly in most affected parts. Coitt Kessler, Austin Fire Department, is coordinating the use of small UAS with the State Operations Center and has been working tirelessly since Thursday. CRASAR is offering the Texas A&M team and the UAVRG team at no cost through the Roboticists Without Borders program. We also hope to try out an app of coordinating small UAS from the newest member of Roboticists Without Borders, Akum.

Hey- If you want to volunteer to fly, please do not fly with out explicitly coordinating with your local fire department and confirming that they in turn have followed standard procedures and coordinated with the state air operations (this is a standard ICS practice and should only take them a few minutes), otherwise there may be a repeat of the dangerous situation where  a) low flying helicopters and SUAS are working too close to each other and b) the data collected was either the wrong data or never made it to a decision maker.  Dangerous situations happened at the Boulder floods and several times in the Texas Memorial Day floods- it shuts down the helicopter operations.  And remember, it hards to become the fire rescue equivalent of a deputy without have met and worked with the fire rescue department- so it may not be realistic to expect to help with this disaster.

Best Practices

Here are links to our best practices for picking UAVs and payloads for disasters:

Where Small UAVs Have Been Used

Small UAVs or UAS have been used at least 9 disasters from flooding or had flooding associated with it: Hurricane Katrina 2005 (the first ever use of a small UAS for a disaster, which was by CRASAR), Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan 2009, Thailand Floods 2011, Typhoon Haiyan Philippines 2013, Boulder Colorado floods 2013, Oso Washington Mudslides 2014, Balkans flooding Serbia 2014, Cyclone Pamela Vanuatu 2014, and the Texas Memorial Day Floods 2015.  CRASAR participated in 3 of the 9 events.

SUAS missions at these floods have been:

  • situation awareness of the flood, affected transportation, and person in distress
  • hydrological assessment- where’s the flooding, state of levees, etc.? Texas has levees that impact people (think New Orleans and Katrina) but also livestock. Another use of small UAS is to determine why the floods are flooding where they are. In the Balkans flooding, the ICARUS team used their UAS and found a illegal dike that was preventing public works engineers from draining the area.
  • searching for missing persons presumably swept away- that was the major use of small UAS at the Texas Memorial Day floods
  • deliver a small line to persons in distress so that they can pull up a heavier line for help- this was also done at the Texas Memorial Day floods
  • debris estimation in order to speed recovery

SUAS proposed, but never flown to the best of my knowledge at an actual disaster (remember a patch to anyone who can help me keep the list of deployments up to date!), missions have been:

  • home owner and business insurance claims- many insurance carriers are actively exploring this and this was a big topic with at our 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding
  • carry wireless repeaters—this was actually done with manned aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol during the Memorial Day floods. The greater persistence and distance may keep that in the CAP list of responsibilities

The Flood of Data and the Promise of Computer Vision

The biggest challenge in using UAS is not flying (or regulations) but rather the flood of data. As I noted in my blog on our Summer Institute on flooding, one of our 20-minute UAS flights for the Texas Memorial Day floods produced roughly over 800 images totaling 1.7GB. There were over a dozen platforms flying daily for two weeks during the floods as well as Civil Air Patrol and satellite imagery. Most of the imagery was being used to search for missing persons, which means each image has to be inspected manually by at least (preferably more). Signs of missing persons are hard to see, as there may be only a few pixels of clothing (victims may be covered in mud or obscured by vegetation and debris) or urban debris (as in, if you see parts of a house, there may be the occupant of the house somewhere in the image). Given the multiple agencies and tools, it was hard to pinpoint what data has been collected when (i.e., spatial and temporal complexity) and then access the data by area or time. Essentially no one knew what they had.  Agencies and insurance companies had to manually sort through news feeds and public postings, both text and images, to find nuggets of relevant information.

Students from our NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates on Computing for Disasters and our partners at the University of Maryland and Berkeley led by Prof. Larry Davis created computer vision and machine learning apps during the Texas floods. The apps searched the imagery for signs of missing persons, including debris that might have been washed away with them and piles of debris large enough to contain a victim. The students also created visualization packages to show where the UAS and other assets had been and what data they had collected.

Don’t Forget About Unmanned Marine Vehicles

As I described in a previous blog on Hurricane Patricia, unmanned marine vehicles have been used for hurricane storm surges but not for flooding. They would be of great benefit for inspecting underwater portions of critical infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines. There’s even EMILY a robot super floatation device that can zoom out to where people are trapped.



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