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LedeTree Tech: Drones Used Heavily in Hurricane Responses

When day broke the day after Hurricane Harvey’s massive rains put much of the Houston area underwater, officials and residents set out to assess the damage. Only they couldn’t do it easily – because the flood water was still there.

By David Royse | LedeTree.com

Enter drones.

“You only have to look at the recent flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey to see what a transformative role that drones are playing,” Federal Aviation Administration Michael Huerta said in remarks prepared for delivery earlier this month at Interdrone, the International Drone Conference and Expo, in Las Vegas.

“After the floodwaters had inundated homes, businesses, roadways and industries, a wide variety of agencies sought FAA authorization to fly drones in airspace covered by Temporary Flight Restrictions,” Huerta said. “We recognized that we needed to move fast – faster than we have ever moved before.

“So we basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request,” he said.

Huerta laid out several ways drones were useful in the hurricane aftermath: A railroad flew a drone to survey damage to a rail line. Oil companies used drone photos to find damaged infrastructure. Fire and emergency officials used them to check for damage to roads and bridges. Cell service companies used them to find which towers were damaged.

“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.

With private use increasing, officials are increasingly keeping an eye on drone use. Their use after Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and again after Irma in Florida, could give the industry a boost with officials seeing their performance as critical.

The same thing happened a couple of weeks ago in Florida after Irma.

Utility companies used drones to find downed power lines and poles.

FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy told reporters after Irma that the utility had 49 drone teams out checking the system for damage.

“It’s been a terrific asset,” Silagy said. “Because we’re seeing things that we, frankly, couldn’t get access to before.

“Parts of Southwest Florida are still flooded and not accessible by vehicles,” Silagy said. “Gasparilla Island, as an example – you have to get a vehicle out by barge. We flew a drone out there and got an idea of ‘What do you need?’ So you don’t have to send somebody out just to figure it out.”

Anyone who has spent time in an area just hit by a massive disaster like a hurricane knows it’s nearly impossible to get cell service right after. Not only can towers (and their power sources) be knocked down, but even when the service actually works, it often gets overloaded.


Sprint, the nation’s fourth-largest cellular service provider, has figured out how to boost cell coverage by mounting radio units to drones. The company says it can provide extra cell coverage over about a 10-square mile area

The insurance industry is using drones to assess damage, hoping to speed up claims. Airbus Industrie’s drone unit

Airbus’ drone unit helped insurance companies assess damage to speed up claims in both Florida and Texas.

“The Airbus Aerial team is changing the way insurers, utilities, and other companies respond to major weather events by bringing together what was once a difficult to fuse set of technologies,” the company said in a statement. “Specifically for insurers, the Airbus Aerial technology allows them to view rich archives of data to see what a given area looked like before a storm, then task high resolution satellites in the areas of most importance to them. Once they have this broad understanding from space, then drones, manned aircraft and other data-capture tools can be deployed as needed to further provide insight.”

Tom Karol, general counsel for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies told CNN Money in a story on Harvey recovery that the industry was depending on the technology.

“I think we can say there’s an unprecedented number of insurance companies using an unprecedented number of drones,” he said.

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