Irma: Some Differences About Flying for Disasters Than from Regular Flying for Videography, Construction, and Agriculture

Please see our report on our 119 flights at Hurricane Harvey for Fort Bend County and Chapter 6 of Disaster Robotics on deploying to disasters.

It sounds like from social media that Florida and the surrounding states are going to have a lot of self-deployed UAS teams for the initial response and restoration phases and then later businesses may engage UAS services. Here are some observations that may be of use.
Keep in mind that the State of Florida and its State Emergency Response Team has worked for several years to integrate small UAS into their program and created state-wide policies for Hurricane Matthew. They flew UAS in Katrina (CRASAR were part of the team) and Rita. The Florida State University Disaster Incident Response Team (a CRASAR member and they flew at Harvey) is already in place, at least one state US&R team uses small UAS to determine travel routes and get local situation awareness, so official groups may be flying and they may be a state-wide plan, even if you aren’t aware of it.
The areas you think should be flown may be under a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR)
  • You can see this through AirMap
  • A Temporary Flight Restriction is the FAA equivalent of the Police blocking off a road. Instead of police cars and tape, the FAA does it by posting the TFR to aviation websites. It’s the law. If you think the police shouldn’t have blocked off an area, you can’t say  “I’m doing a Thelma and Louise on the state highway patrol blockade because I’m a humanitarian” and not expect to get arrested or that you are interfering with how the authorities in charge are trying to handle the situation.
  • Remember, if you didn’t have a pilot’s license or could fly BVLOS before, you can’t get permission to fly in the off-limits area. Going back to the car analogy, if you didn’t have a commercial driver’s license to drive big trucks before the police waived you through the blockage, you can’t drive big trucks now.
  • You need a government agency sponsor for the E-COA
  • However, some smaller jurisdictions may not realize that having you fly a small UAS is the same as having a manned helicopter fly and that they need to go through the official air operations branch of the response to coordinate manned flights. So if they don’t follow official incident management command protocols, especially in Florida where there is a state policy, there are problems from that jurisdiction and their overall response efforts could become ineligible for reimbursement (which are dependent on following protocols).
There may be a high density of low-altitude manned aircraft, some of which may be flying very low, especially in urban and suburban areas. We saw one helicopter zooming at 50 feet AGL and many under 400 feet. At those altitudes, a helicopter having to suddenly swerve to avoid a UAS is dangerous to the people on board. Imagine what would happen if a UAS hit a windshield— even if it didn’t go through, the pilot may react in a way that leads to a crash.
  • have a plan for what to do. Sometimes you may have to “park it in the trees” because you can’t return to home fast enough or know where the hell is going. Sometimes you may have to go high, like when a crop duster descends because you they are going lower.
  • a VHF radio to monitor their traffic and to post that you are flying can be of great value; it’s nice to have an experienced civilian pilot on the team to help with this
  • Harris RangeVue or other ATC software package can be very valuable as well, as someone can monitor this and then radio out to the teams as to approaching aircraft and if it is going to enter the area where the UAS is operating and thus needs to get out of the way. Big shout out to Lone Star UAS Center, as a CRASAR member, we were able to use this
  • Tags such as PrecisionHawk’s LATAS were very, very helpful for us at Harvey
  • Don’t fly BVLOS, because you just can’t see what’s going on with a low flying manned aircraft (yes, they may be in violation of airspace regulations but there are people’s lives at risk- the pilot and people being evacuated or rushed for medical aid)
Access to launch/landing spots is very limited and generally not what you would have picked for normal operations and may not be safe
  • It often in very crowded settings with lots of trees.
  • Personal safety is more at risk. Think snakes. And floating balls of angry red ants. And swarming insects. And in Florida- alligators. Not only can it be dangerous, but by definition, no one can come rescue you.
  • Back to UAS safety: Be prepared for “walking off” or “fly aways”  high tension power lines- which can interfere with electronics, especially compasses. Combine that with heavy cloud cover reducing GPS coverage and you sometimes get unpredictable behavior from even the most reliable UAS.
If you do not have an agency official with you, then have lots of handouts about the agency’s services to give to locals and be able to explain the agencies’ data policy so they won’t get angry at you. In 2015 and 2016 we have been approached by locals who were initially hostile about the use of UAS, thinking that we were there to get pretty pictures to post to YouTube instead of directly helping them). In both Louisiana and Texas, having an agency person to confirm that it was for the agency and to answer questions turned tense moments into moments where the citizens were proud of their government.  For example, Fort Bend County sent CRASAR teams out with a health and human services representative to the densely populated areas just so there was someone knowledgable to answer questions and help (which is better than giving them the phone number for the EOC).  Fort Bend County’s policy is that all drone video is posted to their YouTube channel so we could direct them there. Even in rural areas people will see the drone and come over to ask questions.
If you aren’t flying for an agency and hoping to donate the video or images
  • if you find people in immediate distress or an immediately threatening situation (we found an unreported fire), call 911 and the agency you are working for (they will also try to get the info to the right group) if the cell phones are working
  • please don’t post to social media
    • emergencies managers won’t necessarily be looking at social media
    • they probably won’t have good internet access with electricity and cell towers being down due to wind damage
    • the agency may not be able to use the data because there is no chain of custody or way to verify that it is accurate; people have started rumors and posted photoshopped video in the past so there’s a tendency to ignore contributions
    • you may be liable for violations of personal identifiable information
  • provide a standard filename convention where members of the different response functions can easily find the data they need. Usually location and data
    • GPS coordinates are hard for all groups to parse, so street location (put a pin in Google Maps of where you, get an address, and then take a screenshot on your phone) or neighborhood if you know it
    • Provide a master kmz of all the locations you flew and annotations of anything particularly interesting
    • Think of this as documenting a crime scene and what  would be needed to admit this as evidence; that helps with documenting
Think through your data products. Photogrammetrics are nice but waiting 12 hours to see the extent of wind damage may be too late for anyone to make timely decisions.
  • Still images at nadir are extremely hard for normal humans to comprehend. For general assessment, video FPV may be the most effective.
  • Microsoft ICE is much faster than packages such as PrecisionHawk’s Datamapper which we used, which produce georeferenced pixels. In the initial week of the disaster, the responders didn’t need that level of detail anyway- it is “general outline of how bad is bad”  At Harvey we didn’t begin photogrammetric flights until after a week.
  • Remember that agencies may not have the ability to store terabytes of images, videos, and orthomosiacs. As we found in 2015 and 2016, no one can email a high resolution ortho of an area. But they can email a “framing shot” .jpg.

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