Hurricane Harvey: How to Fly at Hurricane Harvey

Update: I was reminded to remind everyone about Texas UAV privacy laws- we can’t fly for things like damage assessment without the property owner’s permission unless you are explicitly working for a state agency. Louisiana laws may be different, be sure and check out the rules! Also, we’re rapidly moving out of the immediate life-saving response phase and into the initial recovery phase.
Even before I posted about flying since Friday, we’re getting swamped with requests from pilots asking about i) volunteering to fly for Roboticists Without Borders or ii) about volunteering for an agency or iii) telling me that they are self-deploying and asking where is the best place to go. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers most people want to hear. I would direct most people to read Disaster Robotics, where in the last chapter I go through working with response professionals.  Flying for a disaster is very different than flying for a job and the best practices and use case aren’t enough  (those assumed you were trained for disasters)- I don’t have time to go through why it is so different, but here are some points to consider:
It’s too late to join Roboticists Without Borders to fly for the Harvey response. Everyone who is deployed with the team has to have been trained and participated in at least one of our disaster exercises before deploying to an incident. Disasters are different, just knowing how to fly isn’t enough. Think about all those cop movies or movies about or special ops like “Zero Dark Thirty,” there’s a whole language, expectations, working conditions, and a whole lot of prior training that’s involved. If you don’t have the equipment, clothing, the training and knowledge of how to fit in, then you slow the whole response down and worse yet may put yourself at risk. One of the reasons we are extended formal invitations to participate in disasters is that we only deploy people who have been trained. We are having a training exercise in November, though we may have another one sooner.
Self-deploying is illegal and unhelpful. The illegal part should be self-explanatory. As I describe in Disaster Robotics, the unhelpful part stems from the agencies being overwhelmed with their tasks and unable to absorb new technologies or anything that changes what they trained for. The idea of flying on your own, then sharing your data is interesting- sadly handing a thumb drive of video to someone at the front desk of an Emergency Operations Center doesn’t ensure anyone will ever see that video. If you read our papers and best practices, you’ll see that managing the data and sorting out what is important for which groups in a response is very important. So just flying and collecting data is maybe 25% of the job. If you aren’t associated with a response agency, you don’t have anyway of doing the other 75% of the job of getting the right information to the right people in time for them to make a right decision. 
 
It is generally too late to reach out an agency and even have them return your call. Again, as pointed out in Disaster Robotics, agencies can’t handle something new or a change in their procedures or anything that impacts manpower; are accountable to the public so must have vetting that the person is good at UAVs AND can work at a disaster; can’t handle the increased footprint (food, shelter, sanitation, gas) of more people. We  sent two team members back on Monday and one on Tuesday from our UMV team because we weren’t using them. We normally have a dedicated data manager but sent them back to further reduce our footprint. There are no gas stations open or hotels that aren’t already booked.
If you are flying at Harvey, even for an agency, be aware of manned and unmanned aircraft and TFRs. The Part 107 exam isn’t sufficient for understanding how disasters work- for example each jurisdiction will have an Airboss, director of Air Operators, and UAS have to coordinate with them. (Justin Adams is serving as AirBoss for Fort Bend.)  TFRs are important. Fort Bend just posted a TFR which the FAA emailed everyone about. The TFR means you can’t fly without explicitly coordinating with the agency posted as holding the TFR (generally the incident commanders designate an agency to manage it- often it is someone from the forestry service).  As you fly in areas without a TFR, there are a lot of tactical helicopter operations and medivac ops plus Blackhawks zooming around at low altitudes that you have to be aware of.  These things don’t show up airmap.io. Plus the use of UAS may not be advertised or posting to social media but many EOCs are using them, for example, CRASAR has been flying all over Fort Bend since Friday but didn’t post anything to social media about until yesterday (because publicity is low priority).
Which leads to, if you are flying, please remind the agency you are working for to check with their ICS staff on the AirOps hierarchy. We’ve seen agencies that fall under the county or city jurisdictions not realize that they need to coordinate their UAV use with AirOps just like they would if they were using a manned helicopter or CAP asset.  And if they promise to pay a UAV team and didn’t follow the hierarchy, they don’t get paid and thus may not pay the UAV team.
Finally be sensitive to the citizens. High resolution images of someone trapped on a roof is moving and compelling video but it can also come across as the pilot trying to benefit from someone’s suffering (even if you aren’t being paid, “likes” on a YouTube count in this category).

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