The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) coordinated the largest known deployment of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by public officials for a federally declared disaster- both serving as Air Operations for manned and unmanned aircraft and deploying small UAS ranging in size from DJI Mavics to the Insitu ScanEagle. The deployment was for the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management with whom CRASAR had provided assets for previous floods. CRASAR flew 119 mission flights from August 25 (preparing for landfall) to September 4 (when the emergency life-saving response and restoration of services phases of the disaster were largely over), with a record 61 flights on one day. The deployment was led by Justin Adams, who served as Air Operations branch director for Fort Bend County manned unmanned ops and CRASAR Roboticists Without Borders coordinator. Videos are available on Fort Bend County OEM’s website in accordance with the county’s drone data policy; there may be a backlog of posting due to the size of the event.
The UAS flights were for
- rapid spot checks of situation awareness of people in distress
- the extent of flood and tornado damage
- how many people had not evacuated, access routes to neighborhoods
- projecting how long the neighborhoods would be cut off, throughout the county (which is very large and hard to get a handle on)- based on information coming to EOC, the county’s projections and knowledge from 2016 floods- not just easiest or most compelling for media to fly or waiting for complete coverage by manned assets
- inform the public and dispel rumors- allowed County Judge Hebert to immediately and directly address Citizens’ concerns and dispel rumors, e.g., postings to social media about a particular neighborhood, then tasked to fly that neighborhood to get eyes on to inform the EOC as to the situation and to show the community; water is coming over the Richmond railroad bridge
- systematically document damage for federal disaster relief and future planning
- project river flooding by monitoring the river and confirming river flood inundation models
- monitor the river and condition of over 100 miles of levees through out the county
There were additional flights for videography, training, and some flights were actually multiple flights where UAS had to return home for a battery change before continuing. Each mission flight was to satisfy a request made by officials throughout the county following their incident command system. CRASAR also directed Air Operations for the county, coordinating all manned and unmanned assets.
The center was requested by Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management on Aug 24 and activated the Roboticists Without Borders program, which consists of companies, universities, and individual experts who have been trained in disaster response; volunteer their time, travel, and equipment; and conform to Fort Bend County OEM data management policies. The RWB brought in 24 unmanned aerial vehicles and 2 unmanned marine vehicles in from five institutional members: Florida State University Center for Disaster Risk Policy (5), GroundVu (2), Hydronalix (3), Kovar & Associated (1), Lone Star UAS FAA Center of Excellence (3), PrecisionHawk (1), and USAA (2) plus Intel (1). RWB provided 13 UAS pilots, 3 UMV operators, and 4 data managers. The team members were from 6 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Washington State. In addition PrecisionHawk donated five Lancaster UAS and access to their DataMapper software, Boeing Insitu deployed their Scan Eagle through Lone Star UASC, and Intel loaned a Falcon 8 UAS designed from structural inspection, for a total of 25 UAS platforms. The platforms were, in alphabetical order, AirRobot 200, AirRobot 180, DJI Inspire, DJI Mavic, DJI M600 Pro, DJI Phantom 3 Pro, DJI Phantom 4 Pro, Insitu Scan Eagle, Intel Falcon 8, Parrot Disco, PrecisionHawk M100, PrecisionHawk Lancaster 5, 3DR Solo, and UAUSA Tempest.
In addition, there were other significant UAS donations by other groups. Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems loaned a Z30 camera high resolution and high zoom payload that increased the area of view. AirMap adapted their popular UAS flight app for use by CRASAR, allowing the members to see which of their UAS were in the air at the same time as well as other UAS who reported that they were flying in the area. PrecisionHawk’s LATAS tags for the Lancasters were very helpful as well. LSUASC loaned access to Harris’ RangeVue software, allowing AirOperations to see manned flights and alert UAS teams of approaching low flying aircraft. Other donations and support came from ESRI, FireWhat, GroundView, RemoteGeo, Salamander Technologies, Sweetwater Video, and TAC Aero.
Two EMILY unmanned marine vehicles, small robot boats, were available. One was outfitted with a side scan sonar and used to attempt to determine flow rates of the river. The other was outfitted for swift water but was not needed during the rescue phase of operations.