Inside The Building Controversy Around Personal Drone Usage And Hurricane Harvey
There are not many words to describe the massive spectrum of emotion around the impact of Hurricane Harvey. It’s something you have to see in order to truly absorb the engulfing crush of nature’s power, and once you do, the images stay with you. Many of the videos, still photos and accompanying sentiment regarding the disaster were and continue to be communicated via social media, traditional media and smartphones. However, the personal drone is occupying a particularly interesting part within the current situation, and once again, these emerging tech devices have met with controversy.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have provided visual access to the breadth of the hurricane devastation, that is until about this time yesterday. Although personal drones have been credited with being a major help during the rescue of individuals in dire situations associated with previous floods in other states, they can also be a direct hindrance in an already tense disaster situation.
The website of local television station KHOU in Houston was one of the first to report that personal drones were said to be getting the way of and posing an extreme risk to rescue pilots and crews. KHOU’s site reported that as a result, Temporary Flight Restrictions banning personal drone usage is now currently effect for some areas of Houston until further notice.
As is often the case in the earlier days of certain new technology introduction, personal drones have been controversial since their growing rise in mainstream popularity just a few years ago. Questions pertaining to everything from privacy to stalking to physical safety have and continued to plague the technology.
Even so, the trend in consumer interest has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, Engadget recently reported that there are now over double the number of unmanned aircraft in the US than there are manned.
The surging number of devices has also kept the FAA busy with creating regulations for both personal as well as commercial usage. But when it comes to the delicate situation around disaster coverage and support, the place of drones still has yet to be officially configured.
“Hurricane Harvey is a great case study on the current benefits of drone technology and hurdles that need to be overcome,” explains Josh Ogden, AVSS – Aerial Vehicle Safety Solutions Inc., Co-founder. He notes that first responders and volunteers can quickly find stranded individuals and potentially reduce staff fatalities in hazardous areas via the use of personal drones. “But on the flip side, if a drone fails mid-flight and is not equipped with a connected recovery system and crashes into an object or is lost, the benefit of the technology is greatly diminished.”
Mike Winn, CEO of DroneDeploy adds, ”Drones are powerful life-saving tools, with 38 people reported saved by drones last year—more than a third of which were saved by civilian drone owners who helped professional rescue workers.”
Winn says that the FAA’s recent ban on civilian drone operations in the disaster recovery zone is understandable, but he believes that the city is also missing out on an opportunity for the drone community to help in the search and rescue efforts in a situation in which the worst is said to have not yet even hit.
No doubt, this tug-of-war between drone community and the FAA will most likely continue to heat up should the super storm trend that has been predicted play out in our country. In fact, this particular situation in Houston has sparked much discussion and debate among those prominent in the drone space as potential solutions are pondered for the near future. The World Forward Foundation is already encouraging project submissions that to help Hurricane Harvey victims going forward. And Dan Burton, CEO of DroneBase says that in the weeks ahead drone insurance inspections should allow affected families to get their claims documented and receive payment faster.
But what about in during the height of crisis? “Programs could be modeled after existing services that have proven successful, such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service,” says Winn. The Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment, with their local ARES leadership, for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes. ”Instead of an outright ban,” explains Winn, “the FAA could allow for Part 107 certified operators to follow a process, and have the right equipment (such as ADS-B), coordinate activities with local authorities to aid in the search and recovery process.”
Perhaps. But only time will tell if such options are actually accepted. Until then, personal drone usage in disaster situations will continue to be one that is hotly debated.