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Small UAVs for flooding: history, recommendations, missions, and the future

Our thoughts go out to South Carolina and their extreme flooding. We’ve participated in 3 floods, numerous flood exercises, and two summer institutes on flooding.

This blog is divided into 4 sections with some information that we hope may be of use:

  • History of Use of Small UAVs at floods worldwide
  • Recommendations for hobbyists/volunteers who want to fly
  • Missions that have been flown in past floods and the payloads used
  • Other applications of small UAVs

See our previous blogs on small UAVs and flooding (with videos and photos):  general flooding and small UAVs, an update on flooding diasters and the challenges to response ,swift water rescue with UAVs and UMVs, how to fly at floods, data may be the biggest problems at floods, apps for handling data

History of Use of Small UAVs at Floods Worldwide

Small UAVs have been used at least 9 disasters from flooding or had flooding associated with it: Hurricane Katrina 2005* (first reported use of small UAVs), 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 2015 Texas floods*.  *means that CRASAR participated.

If you are a hobbyist or volunteer and want to fly, some recommendations:

Contact your local fire department and volunteer. Don’t be upset if they decline- it is extremely busy for them and hard to add anything new and relatively unknown to their effort. It is actually illegal to self-deploy UAVs- just like showing up to a police incident with a gun. Even if you have a carry permit, you can’t just show up- you needed to be trained and deputized in advance.

With your local fire department’s permission, contact the local or state air operations. Note that some fire departments or sheriff’s offices may not be aware that during many large scale operations, an agency is responsible for coordinating manned aircraft—especially helicopters working at low altitudes and Civil Air Patrol. Even if you have a 333 exemption, you still need to coordinate with air operations so that you don’t accidently interfere with manned helicopters.

Check to see if the area is under a Temporary Flight Restriction, which is the aerial version of a highway closure.  This is one of those things that you learn about when taking pilot’s licenses and a partial motivation for the FAA’s insistence on at least passing the written private pilot exam.

If you are flying check out the best practices on the home page to see what types of payloads to use for what missions.

Check out the UAViators code of conduct as well for humanitarian use of drones.

Missions Small UAVs have been used for and payloads:

Surveillance/Reconnaissance/Situation awareness for both search and rescue and public works. This is about where’s the flooding? how bad? Are people in distress? What is the state of the transportation infrastructure- roads? Bridges? Typically this is done with video payloads. Rotorcraft offer the advantage of being able to hover and thus give a sense of how fast the water is flowing.

Examination of levees for signs of overflow over the top or for seepage indicating incipient collapse. This can be done with visual inspection using video payloads or with a camera payload for photogrammetrics. If you are going to try to create a 2D or 3D photogrammetric reconstruction, you will want GPS stamped high resolution imagery.

Missing persons, both living and presumed drowned and tangled in debris. This is done with high resolution still imagery that geotagged (if you don’t the have the GPS stamp, then it’s hard to direct a team to the right spot). Note CRASAR has software developed by the NSF REU Computing for Disasters program that uses computer vision to help identify victims in flood debris. It’s yet not released for general use but we can run it internally.

Delivery to trapped people. Keep in mind three concerns with the use of small rotorcraft and we recommend extreme care when flying near people. The first concern is that hanging things off of a small UAV changes the dynamics of the vehicle and how well it can be controlled, so it may behave and move unpredictably. Hoisting a fishing line tied to a heavier line tied to the object may be a good way to go. The second is that operators tend to lose depth perception and may get far too close to objects and people. The third is that work by Dr. Brittany Duncan shows that people aren’t naturally afraid of rotorcraft and will let them get dangerously close, so a person may be likely to be injured by a sudden move of a too-close UAV.

Other applications that have been discussed but not reported at an actual disaster:

Swift water rescue: UAVs providing oversight on floating debris that might jeopardize crews in boats working to rescue trapped people

Restoration and recovery assessment: such as identifying easement and standing water conditions that prevent power utility crews from restoring electricity

Carrying wireless repeater nodes: this has been done by Civil Air Patrol manned aircraft, so the advantage of small UAVs is unclear

Debris estimation: both the debris directly from the flood and the indirect debris a few days or weeks later from people having to rip out sheet rock and carpets. The advances in photogrammetrics make it possible to estimate the volume of debris— if you have the “before” survey of the area; we flew with PrecisionHawk at the Bennett Landfill superfund site in February in order to estimate the volume of toxic trash (which was on fire) that needed to be safely removed. The next step is to estimate the content, because vegetation and construction materials have to get handled and processed differently.



ICARUS: European Union Moves Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue Forward!

I had the pleasure of attending the ICARUS project’s final demonstration in Brussels Belgium as an advisor. ICARUS is the European Union funded project “Integrated Components for Assisted Rescue and Unmanned Search operations” which you can read about at here.  The demonstration was quite the success and the entire project has my greatest admiration!

Just a note to anyone wondering why the US is not doing more of this: the European Union funded the project at $17.5 M Euros, far more than any funding for robotics projects available through the National Science Foundation or the Department of Homeland Security. The great ICARUS team and the funding really helped them move the EU ahead of the US and Asia in robotics and in robotics for disasters. This is not the only project being funded at this level in the EU. NIFTY just finished up, TIRAMISU, CADDY, and SHERPA are all major projects focusing on fundamental research in robotics through applications to disasters. Each project has a strong partnership with an actual response agency or national US&R team, following the model that we use at CRASAR- and indeed that’s why I’m on the advisory board for most of these projects. This is a very different model than the DARPA Robotics Challenge in the US.

There were four aspects of the project that resonated with me:

  1. Engagement of the end-users, in this case, Belgium’s US&R team B-FAST, and emphasis on physical and operational fidelity. This is the major thrust of CRASAR. The engagement of end users led to them deploying their rotorcraft UAV for the Serbia-Bosnia floods, with an excellent set of lessons learned reported at IEEE Safety Security Rescue Robotics at
  2. Focus on heterogeneity of robots. The project demonstrated land, aerial, and marine robots complementing each other to provide responders with more capabilities to see and act at a distance. The July demo showed Aerial-Marine cooperation and this, the September demo, focused on Aerial-Ground cooperation. Heterogeneous robots are not a new topic, nor a new topic for disasters (see our work at the Japanese tsunami but ICARUS advanced the field by showing interoperability of control of the robots. Arguably, interoperability is not new and something the US Department of Defense is pursuing but it was nice to see, especially combined with heterogeneity of missions.
  3. Heterogeneity of missions. Perhaps the most compelling part of the demo was the how robots could be repurposed for different missions and how the interoperability framework supported this. A large robot for removing rubble could change its end effector and carry a smaller robot and lift it to the roof of a compromised building. The displays showed the payloads and types of functions each robot could do- this visualization was a nice advance.
  4. One size does not fit all. It was music to my ears to hear Geert DeCubber say that there is not a single robot that will work for all missions. I’ve been working on categorizing missions and the environmental constraints (e.g., how small does a robot need to be), with the initial taxonomy in Disaster Robotics

The project focused on Interoperability between the assets, which was interesting technologically but I wonder if it will be of practical importance beyond what would be used by a single US&R team- assuming that a single US&R team would own a complete set of ground, aerial, and marine vehicles.

Our experience has been that a single agency or ESF is unlikely to own all the robotic assets. For example at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, several different types of ground robots and an aerial robot were simultaneously deployed. It didn’t make sense for a single operator to be able to control the devices— with a UGV outside the building clearing rubble, a UGV inside inserting a sensor, and a UAV outside conducting a radiological survey- these seem to be delegated functionality and better kept as separate modules. Furthermore, many of the devices were brought in for the disaster, that the best available was deployed rather than existing JAEA, so there is always the issue of how to incorporate the latest tool.

Even in a relatively small disaster, such as the Prospect Towers parking garage collapse, New Jersey Task Force 1 borrowed ground robots from a law enforcement agency. The point is that for the next decade, teams may be using ad hoc assemblies of robots, not owning a dedicated set of assets.

For CRASAR, the challenge is how the different end-users get the right information from the ad hoc assembly of robotics fast enough to make better decisions.

The project had a host of commendable technical innovations, such as showing a small solar power fixed-wing that operated for 81 hours endurance and provided a wireless network for the responders, a novel stereo sensor for the tiny Astec Firefly which they showed flying in through a window, and an exoskeleton controller for a robot arm which is being commercialized.

I particularly liked the ICARUS focus on establishing useful mission protocols. They experimented with launching a fixed wing immediately to do recon and wireless and provide overwatch of the camp and with using a quadrotor to fly ahead of convoy and try to ascertain the best route to the destination when roads might be blocked with rubble or trees.

TED talk by CEI Director Murphy: It’s not the robots, it’s the data!

You can also click here to check out the whole video!

Robots, drones and heart-detectors: How disaster technology is saving lives

Robots with cameras, microphones and sensors searched for victims stranded in flooded homes and on rooftops. They assessed damage and sent back images from places rescuers couldn’t get. It was August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. These robots were a crucial connection between emergency responders and survivors. Ten years later, new technology is changing the way we handle whatever life throws at us. In the case of disaster relief and recovery, this means more effective ways to save lives and begin the arduous process of rebuilding after catastrophe.

“You’ve got a golden 72 hours of the initial response that’s very critical,” said Dr. Robin Murphy,  a robotics professor and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University and also worked with robots after the September 11, 2001, attacks, in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and at the Fukushima nuclear accident. ”Then you have the restoration of services. After the emergency teams have got everything under control, you got to get your power back on, your sewage, you know, your roads and that.”

UAVs such as the PrecisionHawk Lancaster, a fixed wing drone, are not only able to aide human disaster responders by providing photos of where to look for victims, but they also provide a valuable resource for determining how to approach the relief efforts. ”It acts like a plane. It’s smarter than a plane because it’s got all sorts of onboard electronics to let it do preprogram surveys. It takes pictures like on a satellite or a Mars explorer and then pulls those back together into a hyper-accurate map — a 3-D reconstruction,” Murphy said. Murphy also said it’s not only very accurate, but it’s also easy to pick up and maneuver.

Check out the rest of the article here

Indian Scientists Making Snake Robot for Search and Rescue Missions

Two prototypes of the Snake Robot for Search and Rescue Missions, called SARP (Snake-like Articulated Robot Platform) have been designed by scientists of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Indian Institute of Technology-Hyderabad (IIT-H). Developed from fire-proof ABS plastic, the snake-like motion of the prototypes (about a metre in length) helps in navigation of rough terrain, he said. The robots can also communicate with each other.

“In a disaster site, like a collapsed building in an earthquake, a building on fire, or a dangerous environment, like a nuclear power plant in an accident, a snake robot can be used to access difficult-to-reach spaces and look for survivors under the debris,” R. Prasanth Kumar, associate professor at the department told IANS. ”It can then relay valuable information about the environment and help rescue workers in planning their missions,” Kumar said.

Check out more information here

Researchers to tap mosquitoes’ sense of smell to develop rescue bot

A group of researchers will start development next month of a rescue robot that can detect human scents at disaster sites where people may be trapped under debris or earth and sand. The group will consist of researchers from the University of Tokyo, major chemical company Sumitomo Chemical Co. and the Kanagawa Academy of Science and Technology.

The researchers will draw on mosquitoes’ ability to distinguish the faintest smell of animal or human perspiration to create a small sensor that can be attached to an unmanned drone or other device. They aim to put these robots to practical use by 2020.

Check out more information here

Word from Responders: “Small UAVs are Available, Now Help Us Use The Data They Generate!” REU Students Provide Apps

Virtual reality reconstruction of Blanco River flood by Dr. Russ Taylor from CRASAR flight

TEES just concluded a three day Summer Institute on Floods (July 26-28, 2015), which was hosted by our “mother” center, the Center for Emergency Informatics. The Summer Institute focuses on the data-to-decision problems for a particular type of disaster. This year’s Summer Institute was the second in two-part series on floods and brought together representatives from 12 State agencies, 15 universities, and 5 companies for two days of “this is what we did during the Texas floods” and one day of “this is what we could do or do better” experimentation with small unmanned aerial vehicles, crowd sourcing, computer vision, map-based visualization packages, and mobile phone apps for common operating pictures and data collection.

A portion of the Summer Institute focused strictly on UAVs. The session was organized by the Lone Star UAS Center and the TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), both of whom flew during the Texas floods.

The UAV field exercises  spanned four scenarios witnessed during the floods:

  • Search of cars and other vehicles swept away by a storm surge for trapped victims;
  • Search for missing persons who may have fled campsites or been swept down river;
  • Assessment of damage to power lines and transformers and presence of standing water which prevents restoration of power infrastructure; and
  • Assessment of damage to houses and estimates of household debris, which is critical to insurance companies estimating damage and agencies such as the American Red Cross in projecting social impacts.

The exercises were staged at the 1,900 acre TAMU Riverside Campus with one fixed wing and three types of rotorcraft  flown by CRASAR and David Kovak, a member of CRASAR’s Roboticists Without Borders program.

A major finding out of the institute was the realization that while State agencies are adopting UAVs, the agencies can’t process all the imagery coming in. For example, a single 20-minute UAV flight by CRASAR at the floods produced over 800 images totaling 1.7GB. There were over a dozen platforms flying daily for two weeks as well as Civil Air Patrol and satellite imagery. Each image has to be viewed manually for signs of survivors, clothing, or debris that indicate a house or car (and thus a person too) was swept to this location.

Given the huge demand for automating image processing, it was no surprise that a panel of four judges from the agencies awarded $900 in prizes to three students from the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The prizes were for software that classified imagery and displayed where it was taken.

First place went to Julia Proft for an application that used computer vision and machine learning to find images from the floods which contained a spectral anomaly such as color. Below is UAV image flagged with an amaloy and anomalies indicated on a parallel image to make it easier to find where in the image the anomalies occurred without marking up the image and blocking the view.

UAV image flagged with an amaloy and anomalies indicated on a parallel image

urban debrisSecond place went to Matt Hegarty for an application that used computer vision and machine learning to find images from the floods which contained urban debris having straight lines or corners. In this image, the program found  instances of trash, pvc poles, and other indications of where houses (and possibly victims) had been swept down river.


Third place went to Abygail McMillian for a program that visually displayed where and when UAV data or any geotagged data was taken. The spatial apsect is important for responders to see where assets have sensed- at Nepal, UAV teams often surveyed the same areas but missed important regions. The temporal aspect (a timeline scale on the map) is important because with the changes in the river flood stage, hydrological and missing person images become “stale” and flights should be reflown to get new data.

Data display with timeline

The 10 students (nine from under-represented groups) were from Colorado, Georgia, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming and spent  the summer conducting research through the Computing for Disasters NSF REU site grant under the direction of Dr. Robin Murphy. Multiple State agencies requested those student-created apps be hardened and released. In previous years, the panels have awarded prizes primarily to hardware- UAVs, battery systems, communications nodes, etc. This year, the focus was on software and programming to help analyze the data the hardware generates.



Summer Institute Dates Announced (finally!) July 26-28

The 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding will be held on July 26-28 at the Riverside Campus, College Station, Tx.  Check out the information at


Drone Helps Rescue 2 Boys from Raging River

Two boys needed to be rescued from the raging Little Androscoggin River in Maine after their tube overturned Tuesday. Only one of them was wearing a life jacket. Frank Roma, chief of the Auburn fire department, wanted to get that boy a life jacket before attempting the rescue. The water was rough, and rescuers had a hard time getting to the boys, so they used Roma’s personal drone to deliver a life jacket and a safety line to the boys.

“We wanted to make sure we got a life jacket on that second child so that if they did fall in the water we could catch them downstream,” said Roma. “We used the drone to fly a tag line out to the young man that was on the rock, we instructed him to untie and to pull life jacket over to him.”

Check out more information here

Stop Laughing at Those Clumsy Humanoid Robots

The Humanoid Robot, built like a linebacker with an oversized head, tiptoes on two feet through the dirt. It’s free of any wires. It’s unleashed—but it’s now wavering. They were all part of a competition in Pomona, California put on by Darpa, the far-out research wing of the Pentagon. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Darpa set out to encourage the development of robots that can assist in similar catastrophes: machines capable of working where humans dare not go. And so the yearly Darpa Robotics Challenge was born.

To explore something like a contaminated nuclear reactor, a robot would have to conquer not only piles of rubble in the facility, but also be able to open doors and climb stairs and ladders. In a human-designed space, the thinking goes, a humanoid robot would be best equipped to handle the job. And indeed, for all their clumsiness, the semi-autonomous robots (human operators still do much of the controlling in the challenge) passed some impressive tests, including driving an ATV.

The thing is, relief workers have had operational “tracked” robots for 15 years that roll along on tank-like treads. They even helped out in the aftermath of Fukushima, and still run tests there to this day. Bipedal humanoids, on the other hand, have never gotten near an actual disaster. They’re expensive, and you don’t have to be a physicist to notice these robots are top heavy.

So why even bother developing bipeds? Well, when Darpa’s handing out $2 million for first place in its challenge, building a walking robot that drives ATVs must seem like a sweet deal.

Check out more information at