Drones for Emergency Response Teams


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The market has expanded dramatically.

Quadcopter as emergency tool

How useful in an emergency?

Part One of Two.

It was just two years ago when we wrote our first article about drones. At that time, non-military drones were still in their infancy. In fact, drones were mostly high-tech toys that (probably) appealed to the same folks who love electric cars and boats and model airplanes.

So we wrote about them as toys, with some interesting but not yet widespread uses like delivery of packages or emergency equipment.

Today things are different. The market has expanded dramatically. And because we are ALWAYS interested in leveraging our strengths when it comes to preparing for or dealing with an emergency, it makes sense to look a lot more closely at drones as emergency tools.

A new category of drones has appeared.

In addition to military and hobby use, we now have drones designated “for commercial and non-governmental use.” Naturally, anything labeled “commercial” means it carries rules.

So whether you’re looking at purchasing a drone — whether as a toy or a piece of emergency team equipment — you should be aware of the latest rules from the FAA.

New Rules for Small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) as of August 29, 2016

Register Your Drone

Any UAS weighing more than .55 lbs. must be registered. If it weighs less than .55 lbs you can register it online; otherwise, go to the FAA website to get started registering it on paper.  Here’s the link:  https://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/aircraft_registry/UA/

A pilot under 13 years of age will need an adult to complete the registration.

Pilot Your Drone Safely

Caveat – these rules are changing! (You’ll see why when you look at them carefully.) If you are really interested in using a drone, be sure you know the rules for non-recreational use.  You can check in on a regular basis to monitor any changes, at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/

The current rules as of this date, November, 2016:

  • Drones must remain in visual line of sight of the pilot — no first-person-view cameras. (This means no flying by what the camera shows as opposed to what you actually see from where you are standing.)
  • Maximum speed is 100 mph and maximum altitude is 400 feet.
  • Pilots must be at least 16 years old and hold a “remote pilot airman certificate,” issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
  • Operation is only allowed during daylight hours or twilight with appropriate lighting.
  • Pilots must avoid flying over populated areas or over specific people not involved in the operation. ( Based on an “Expectation of privacy”)

To see a summary of the entire set of rules (so-called “Part 107”) go here: https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/Part_107_Summary.pdf

The rules for recreational use really don’t vary much from the “official” rules listed above! They include the same limitations on line of sight, height and speed, and, in particular, avoiding “no-fly” zones like airports, military bases, athletic events, and the White House. One difference: your teenager doesn’t need a Remote Pilot certificate if he wants a drone for Christmas. But if the drone weighs over .55 lbs., it will have to be registered.

Please note — again! – rules keep changing! In particular, rules for non-recreational use, like for emergency purposes, which we’ll get to, are under continuing review. NASA is leading a multibillion-dollar effort to develop a system to manage manned and unmanned flight, while the FAA is expected to ease restrictions on commercial drones.

Using Your Drone as an Emergency Response Tool

Defense is by far the largest market for drones. But there are so many smart ways a drone can be used by the rest of us! For example,

  • Farmers can check on irrigation lines and crop growth at the far reaches of the acreage.
  • Scientists can track ice melt or water level rise without having to wade in, or visible earthquake faults or landslides.
  • Firefighters can safely track movement of the fire line, position of crews and equipment.
  • Real estate professionals can film a property’s exterior, and then tour the entire home inside, for the benefit of prospective buyers. (Walk-through videos are already popular, but for an aerial view of the whole property, the agent has to rent a helicopter!)

What about Emergency Response Team usage?

While not commercial, and yet not exactly recreational, here are some uses we are considering . . .

  • Use a drone to provide overhead lighting when searching an area at night
  • Inspect upper levels of buildings or structures (in industrial or high-rise residential areas)
  • Film damaged areas or obstructions following a disaster
  • Map area covered by the CERT team to segment into manageable areas
  • Search areas for survivors following an event
  • Reconnaissance of adjacent areas to identify pathways to safer positions
  • Drop markers to designate specific damages or routes to follow
  • Monitor teams during training exercises with filmed records for group critique
  • Transfer supplies, first aid items, batteries, replacement radios, etc.
  • Transport high value items over a distance, reducing the need for multiples of expensive equipment (e.g., gas sniffer)

You can probably come up with many more.

Challenges with these Emergency Team uses?

1-Rules may limit your CERT team’s use.

When you look at even this short list of uses, you will see that a number of these uses would be against current rules! Let’s look again . . .

  • Can’t fly at night.
  • Can’t let drone out of your sight.
  • Can’t fly higher than 400 feet.

From our standpoint as emergency responders, these restrictions make no sense. In a serious situation the safety of our neighbors in the community is more important that the actual altitude of the drone looking for them! Moreover, we have confidence that some of these restrictions will soon be lifted.

So we are not letting these restrictions stop our analysis.

2-Battery life may limit your team’s use.

Most drones have a flying time of only 10-20 minutes. To get a couple minutes more of flight can cost a couple hundred more dollars in purchase price. No matter which model you get, plan on getting at least 3 or 4 extra batteries right along with the machine.

3-Set up in advance to be able to share your images and videos.

Clearly, the emergency planning and response ideas above would generate information you’d want to share with the rest of your team or with First Responders! There are several options available – the obvious one being sending footage to YouTube or Vimeo.

However, the FAA may label your video as “commercial use” if it appears with an ad on it, whether or not you wanted it!  (Again, in an emergency, I’d probably not worry about that. But be aware . . .) Other sharing options include apps provided by Facebook, Dropbox and certain drone manufacturers.

If you goal is to share your work, find out more before purchasing.

OK, with all this in mind,

Which drone is best for our Neighborhood Response Team?

In our community, we already have some guys who race electric cars. And there are a couple who build and fly model airplanes. The skills they bring to the table will be valuable – but not all of them are on our CERT team, of course.

So, as we shop for a drone, we have to add “ease of set-up” and “easy to fly” to our shopping list.

Here’s the whole shopping list so far:

  • Big enough to fly outside, in somewhat inclement weather (Cheap toys won’t work.)
  • Strong enough to carry something to a designated location
  • The best battery life we can get for the price
  • Proven performance (not bleeding edge technology)
  • Reasonable image and video quality, though not necessarily the highest
  • Easy to set up and start flying
  • Compatible with variety of hand-held mobile devices

We’ve done a lot of comparing of different machines to get to this point! I hope the data above will be helpful to you in your own search.

Our next Advisory will review the machines in our “list of top choices.” Watch for it in about a week.

Just one last caveat. Our research showed prices for THE SAME MACHINE varying by as much as $100.00.  So take your time to be sure you’re getting exactly what you thought you were getting!

See our top choices in Part Two of Drones for Emergency Response Teams.

Virginia
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S.  Found this tidbit you should consider, too: “Report to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in at least serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage of at least $500.”  (!)

 

 

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