The Federal Aviation Administration says the damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, along with their disruption of normal transportation and power systems, spurred strong demand in recent weeks for special use of aerial drones to help make damage assessments.
In fact, after Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast and even before Irma struck Florida, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the InterDrone conference Sept. 6 in Las Vegas that drones were already playing "a transformative role" in Texas.
"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response
will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country," Huerta said.
He noted that in the days after Harvey struck the FAA had soon issued more than 70 drone authorizations "covering a broad range of activities by local, state and federal agencies – and that number will continue to climb." The FAA later said it authorized 137 uses of drones in Texas.
Those included use of the remote-controlled flying machines equipped with cameras to
check for damage to roads, bridges, underpasses, rail facilities, water treatment plants, cell phone towers, fuel tanks and power lines, the FAA said.
"In many of these situations, unmanned aircraft were able to conduct low-level operations more efficiently – and more safely – than could have been done with manned aircraft," Huerta said.
In addition, "our ability to quickly authorize unmanned aircraft operations was especially critical because most local airports were either closed or dedicated to emergency relief flights, and the fuel supply was low. So essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system."
State departments of transportation have been testing drones in recent years to help inspect hard-to-reach infrastructure such as the undersides of high bridges, and comparing that data to information gleaned by using special equipment to put engineers in place to visually inspect the facilities up close.
But by putting hundreds of drones in the air soon after storms eased up in Texas and Florida – often when many roads were still blocked by debris or floodwaters – the industry is showing a new rapid-response role when disaster strikes.
The FAA said on Sept. 15, after Irma swept Florida, that use of the unmanned aircraft there had "been invaluable in supporting response and recovery efforts."
"When Irma's winds and floodwaters damaged homes, businesses, roadways and industries, a wide variety of agencies sought [FAA] authorization to fly drones in the affected areas. The FAA responded quickly," the agency said, "issuing a total of 132 airspace authorizations as of today to ensure the drones can operate safely."
It said the Air National Guard used drones normally tasked for combat operations to perform aerial surveys to determine which areas were most in need of its assistance.
Federal Customs and Border Protection officials sent drones from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Florida to help map areas in Key West, Miami and Jacksonville, using radar to survey geographic points on infrastructure such as power plants for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
With about 6 million having lost electric power from Irma, Florida Power and Light soon had "49 drone teams out surveying parts of the state still not accessible by vehicles," the FAA said, and that helped the utility restore power. "Some of the drone operators FPL hired were flying within an hour after the storm winds subsided."
The agency indicated that drones could also help insurers speed their processing of damage claims to pay customers who suffered property losses. It said that Airbus Aerial, the commercial drone services division of Airbus, was helping insurance companies "act more quickly on claims coming in from homeowners. The company is combining data from drones, manned aircraft and satellite data to give a clearer overall image of specific locations before and after an incident."
Above: Drone usage for infrastructure inspections has spread quickly from this 2015 test by Minnesota DOT researchers to fast deployments to check on damage in the wake of hurricanes.
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