Archive for October, 2016

Emergency Managers Find Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Effective for Flooding and Popular With Residents

A paper to be presented next week at the IEEE International Symposium on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics in Lausanne, Switzerland, details the use of small unmanned aerial systems in two recent Texas floods in Fort Bend County, a major Houston suburb and 10th largest populated county in Texas. The 21 flights over four days provided flood mapping and projection of impacts, helping the county prepare and respond to the floods. Surprisingly, the flights did not encounter public resistance and the videos became a popular and useful asset for informing the county residents as to the state of the flooding. A pre-print is available here.

The small unmanned aerial systems were deployed through the Roboticists Without Borders program of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue for two flood events in April and May 2016. Both events were presidential declared disasters.  Experts from DataWing Global, CartoFusion Technologies, USAA, and Texas A&M embedded with the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management and the Fort Bend County Drainage District to fly low-cost DJI Phantoms and Inspires. The flights provided flood assessment including flood mapping and projection of impact in order to plan for emergency services and verification of flood inundation models, providing justification for future publicly accountable decisions on land use, development, and roads.

The paper, titled Two Case Studies and Gaps Analysis of Flood Assessment for Emergency Management with Small Unmanned Aerial Systems by Murphy,  Dufek, Sarmiento, Wilde, Xiao, Braun, Mullen, Smith, Allred, Adams, Wright, and Gingrich, documents the successful use of the small unmanned aerial systems for the two. It discusses the best practices that emerged but also identifies gaps in informatics, manpower, human-robot interaction, and cost-benefit analysis.

The annual IEEE International Symposium on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics was established in 2002 by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. It is the only conference dedicated to the use of ground, aerial, and marine robots for public safety applications. It typically attracts 60-150 researchers, industrialists, and agency representatives from North America, Europe, and Asia. This year’s conference will be held at Lausanne, Switzerland, see for more information about the conference.

The TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue is the leader in documenting, deploying, and facilitating technology transfer of unmanned systems for disasters. It has inserted robots or advised on the use of robots at over two dozen events in 5 countries, starting with the 9/11 World Trade Center and including Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

For more information contact:


Justin Adams, US Datawing and UAS lead for Roboticists Without Borders, , 832.653.1057

Dr. Robin Murphy, director for the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue,, 813.503.9881

For Hurricane Matthew: Quick Guide For Agencies Flying small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) for Emergencies

The illustrated version in pdf is here.

This quick guide is aimed at helping emergency managers quickly determine how they can exploit small unmanned aerial systems (like quadcopters).  The guide covers our best understanding of who can fly?  where can they fly?, and  any additional considerations in planning. Our best practices series has other documents on what kind of data you can expect to get, flight duration, etc., but this guide is about how the new regulations impact emergency managers. It is based on our SUAS deployments since 2005 and lessons learned from deployments by our colleagues.




If members of your agency own a small UAS or have friends with a small UAS, they cannot fly at the disaster- even if they aren’t asking for money. The FAA has repeatedly ruled that a) disasters are a business or government activity and  b) if the UAV flight is a donation to a business or government, it is the same thing as if the business or government agency flew directly.


Therefore, the only people/companies who can fly are those with a:

  • Part 107 license. The license is new and many people/companies don’t have these yet.
  • 333 exemption. Essentially a business license versus of the COA. Many hobbyist declared themselves a company to get a 333.
  • COA. Essentially a government or academic license.


Your agency does not have to have the 107, 333, or COA– just formally invite the group to fly on your behalf. If the group has one of the above, there are three important caveats.


1. Controlled airspace. They can fly at a disaster in uncontrolled airspace, but will need special permissions for controlled airspace. Keep in mind, many densely populated areas will be in controlled airspace.


2.  They have to obey all the flight restrictions for their license, including Temporary Flight Restrictions. Getting permission to fly under a Temporary Flight Restriction does not give them permission to change up the rules, it only means that they are now coordinated with the rest of the air traffic who will expect them to obey the same rules as in normal flights.


3. 24 hour notifications before flights may be required.  If the group is flying under a 333 or COA, they have to post an online notice of intention to fly in a specific area, called a NOTAM, 24 hours in advance. So if you think you are going to have a group fly, have them declare as soon as you know. There is no downside to filing a NOTAM and then not flying.





For planning purposes there are 3 types of airspaces: uncontrolled, controlled, and TFRUncontrolled means they can fly anywhere that is not controlled according to their license. TFR was covered above. That leaves the controlled airspace.


You can quickly determine if an area you want a group to fly in is in controlled airspace by going to:


and enter the nearest town, then click the appropriate boxes.  What is “Controlled airspace” and what you have to do to get permission to fly in it will depend on whether the group has a) a Part 107 license or b) a 333 exemption or COA.


a. Determining Part 107 controlled airspace.  If the group has a 107, click on the menu on the left that says Controlled Airspace and “all”. You will get something like this:





Anything in shade means that it is controlled airspace. This means that they can fly only IF they have an airspace authorization that they have applied for in advance online and gotten approval. Note: the FAA system is backlogged by weeks, so for Matthew, this may not make possible to get approval fast enough.


b. Determining 333 or COA airspace.


Clear airmap and instead click on “blanket COA”. You should get something like this:




Any area in orange means that the airspace is off limits without additional permissions- no matter what altitude you are flying at.  The controlled airspace is due to airports. A local group may already have permission to fly in those areas, but may not. If not, permission to fly in controlled airspace on short notice is handled through an Emergency COA, also called ECOA, process. The process takes about 1 hour to get through the FAA- assuming you have the GPS coordinates of where you want to fly, the COA number, etc.


The key is that the tower has to approve the flights (actually the approve the process of letting them know where you’re flying, when you take off, land, etc.) and the FAA has to agree to the temporary extension of the current license.


  • Note about 333 exemption. ECOAs are granted only to businesses or agencies, not individuals doing business as. Too many quasi-hobbyists were trying to fly at disasters without working with a response agency.





There are three considerations:


  • Data. The data (images, video) really belongs to your agency and needs to be handled as such. It may have personal identifying information. Some groups may routinely post videos and images to the web or tweet, which might not be appropriate. Therefore, you may want to make clear what the data management policies are applicable to flights on your behalf.


  • Privacy, state laws, or other regulations plus the public perception.  There may be state or local rules that impact the use of SUAS. Regardless, if you have a group flying SUAS for disasters, the residents will need to be aware that they are legitimate- plus the teams will be magnets for residents asking for help or assistance. So you will probably want to plan to have an agency representative in uniform or vest with the team.


  • Some SUAS may be software disabled from flying in TFR areas. DJI Phantom 3 and Inspires, which are very common, are now disabled by the manufacturer when a TFR is in place. So that may be something to discuss with your SUAS team.  DJI does have a procedure that allows agencies to override the software and fly up to 1.5 nautical miles from an airport, trusting the group to have obtained permissions.

Unmanned Systems and Hurricane Matthew: Lessons from 2010 Haiti Earthquake

As Hurricane Matthew approaches Haiti, it is hard not to think of the terrible devastation from the 2010 earthquake. The Haiti earthquake taught us some valuable lessons about the use of unmanned systems for the initial response to a disaster- that 0-24 hour period where emergency managers are trying to get an accurate assessment of the scope of the disaster and how to allocate resources to save lives immediately and mitigate any dangers, and to set in motion the plans and resources needed to protect lives and quality of life for the longer term. One key lesson is that bigger is better, at least for the initial aerial assessment. Another is to not forget about unmanned marine systems. These two lessons show up in other events such as other hurricanes and tsunamis. A lesson that did not come out of Haiti was that the effective use of unmanned systems in the 0-24 hour time period depends on communications. UAVs generate terabytes of imagery that are difficult to upload to the Cloud or file transfer/email to others.


In terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, Haiti makes an interesting case study. The Haitian government quickly put out an aviation notice that UAVs were prohibited. Period. That actually made sense given that there would be a lot of helicopters working at low altitudes, general air traffic control was complex enough, and that UAV coordination with air traffic control was still being worked out (and as of 2016, it’s not 100% resolved to this day). What was interesting was that the US Government put up a Global Hawk (see Peterson, Handbook of Surveillance Technologies, 3rd Edition) which provided aerial assessments of the extent of the damage without entering the Haitian airspace and two weeks later Predators were being used and coordinated with manned air traffic (see While on one Snowden-we-are-being-watched level, this may be disturbing to have drones able to see into other countries without violating airspace, on another it is wonderful. Emergency workers can get data without having to totally rework how multiple government agencies coordinate. The most important aspect of the use of military drones is that it illustrates that agencies need higher altitude, longer persistence UAVs geographically distributed disasters, in order to get the rapid coverage of damage (area X needs help) and state of the infrastructure (what is the best route to get resources there?). As we have seen with flooding in the US (we have a paper about to come out on this), small hobbyist-styles of UAVs are like flashlights illuminating small patches, while military drones are stadium lighting. Of course, big drones or Civil Air Patrol assets may not be available. This leads to the questions as to whether small hobbyists quadcopters can contribute, how to aggregate the data from hobbyists and send it (especially under low bandwidth conditions), and how can agencies handle the volumes of data and trust the data they are getting. These are some of the issues raised in my article at


The second lesson from Haiti in terms of unmanned systems is to not forget the value of unmanned marine vehicles. If the hurricane brings intensive flooding or high storm surges, then the underwater portions of the critical infrastructure are at risk. This means bridges (I’ll never forget crossing the bridge into Punta Gorda for Hurricane Charley and the team being told not to stop on the bridge because there was not way to know how safe the bridge was). Bridges are important but also ports and shipping channels. It also mean pipelines, which can be leaking and affecting the environment, and telecommunications (the 2015 Texas Memorial Day floods washed away the bridge and the telephone lines to Wemberly). In Haiti, the state of the ship channel was unknown (had any depths changed?) as was the over port (could it take the weight of cargo being unloaded onto the docks?). The traditional approach has been to use divers, but in Haiti, the Navy and Army MDSU 2 team used SeaBotix ROVs to speed up the assessment as noted in Disaster Robotics (


Disaster Robotics has more information about unmanned systems at the 2010 Haitian earthquake.