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Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery

091117 techpic-web
Laura Shell, center, a Travelers catastrophe claims specialist from Lexington, Va., trains to become a certified drone operator at the insurance company's Windsor, Conn., training center on Aug. 30. The industry is using drones to help assess damage in Texas from Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb)

Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and devastating flooding to parts of southeastern Texas. But it also brought an influx of drone operators eager to assist with rescue and recovery efforts as cities such as Houston are beginning to rebuild.

Now, with hurricane season in full swing and Hurricane Irma battering the southeastern United States, drones are expected to play a significant role in recovery efforts and could shift the narrative surrounding the benefits of drone use, particularly as it pertains to emergency response.

"I see the drones playing a much greater and valuable role," Brandon Stark, director of the Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety at the University of California, Merced, told the Washington Examiner. "We can start to see more aerial imagery coming in with assessments of damage, road assessments, building and housing assessments.

"We've seen concerns about pollutants in the water. It's a perfect example of where we can easily and quickly send a drone out to take professional shots and get higher quality inspections before we can send any person into that area."

In the days immediately after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, drone operators were quick to respond to the area to support rescue and recovery efforts, and the Federal Aviation Administration issued 43 unmanned aircraft system authorizations for emergency drone activities by Aug. 31.

Entities that were granted authorizations included media outlets, energy and oil companies examining their facilities, and state environmental quality officials working to comprehend the impacts of flooding and drainage.

By Sept. 6, the number of authorizations issued by the FAA hit 127, of which 69 were still active, the agency said.

Advocates of the technology have long touted the benefits of drones in responding to natural disasters, as operators can deploy the unmanned aircraft to inspect local infrastructure such as roads and bridges, deliver supplies to those in need, and survey damage to houses for insurance purposes, without putting people at risk.

Now, Hurricane Harvey is intensifying the push for emergency responders and the federal government to further integrate drones into disaster response and recovery.

"We have so many drone operators who want to get involved," Stark said. "As we continue to utilize drones in these emergency situations, we'll continue to get better at this. Drone operations have only been legal for just over a year now, so there's still a learning curve for how emergency personnel can effectively use drones in their response and recovery efforts."

In the hours after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas late last month, some used drones to survey the damage to the area. But three days later, the FAA issued temporary flight restrictions over the Houston area, grounding drones unless pilots received authorization from the agency.

The FAA also issued stern warnings to drone operators willing to test their luck, warning those found flying without authorization could face "significant fines" and may violate federal, state and local laws.

The agency's decision to issue the temporary flight restrictions was criticized by some drone advocates who said the FAA was missing an opportunity.

"I was discouraged to see the tone that the FAA has taken, which is, ‘Stay out of the way. If you have a drone, keep it on the ground. Stay out of the way and let the emergency responders do their jobs,'" Michael Kotrous, a program associate for the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told the Washington Examiner. "It's an unforced error on the part of the FAA. They could gain a lot from drones."

The FAA, though, warned that civilian drones could impede rescue and recovery efforts, as manned aircraft were flying at low altitudes in the Houston area.

But Kotrous said there are no reported incidents of drones colliding with aircraft over the past few years, and said because drones are so lightweight, they pose minimal risks to pilots and personnel on board.

But others, including Stark, said there are other concerns.

"Imagine an airplane pilot who's focused in on wildfire suppression, and you see something that shouldn't be there," he said. "That's where we start getting into how do humans react to unfamiliar situations? And that increases the risk of accidents."

Though the FAA put temporary flight restrictions in place, Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, said the agency hasn't been aggressive enough in enforcing it and needs to make a "few examples out of people" who violate the temporary flight restrictions.

"You're interfering with the people who are trying to help," Murphy told the Washington Examiner. "The FAA hasn't been aggressive at all. They've been the opposite of that."

Murphy led the first team to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles for a disaster during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and she and her team deployed to the Fort Bend County, Texas, Office of Emergency Management to monitor flooding during Hurricane Harvey.

Though she said anyone who has worked with the military or in emergency management recognizes how unmanned and manned aircraft can be integrated, particularly during disaster recovery efforts, Murphy said she's worried about civilian drone operators who lack the proper training.

"What I'm scared of is people are trying to push the envelope," she said. "People with drones during Harvey are taking this as a moral victory, and there are going to be twice as many people who show up in Florida [during Hurricane Irma]."

The FAA opened up skies for drone operators last year when it legalized commercial drone use through its Part 107 rules.

And Congress has signaled it's embracing drones, as the House's bill reauthorizing the FAA includes provisions pertaining to unmanned aerial vehicles. Additionally, lawmakers in both chambers have introduced standalone bills giving state, local and tribal governments the authority to regulate drone use below 200 feet.

But despite the movement from the federal government, Murphy said she's still dismayed by how long it's taken emergency management officials to integrate drones into their efforts, despite their benefits.

"If you had told me it would take 10 years for UAVs to be integrated … because it would be so clear they're of value to professionals," she said. "It's been more than 10 years and they still haven't been integrated in. The professionals need to have access. They need to be using them, and it needs to be routine."