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Hurricane Harvey and the transformative power of commercial UAVs

LAS VEGAS — For an example of the transformative role drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles, as they’re known in the industry — will play across industries, just consider, said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, what happened after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last week.

“The hurricane response will be looked upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage here in this country,” Huerta said during his opening keynote at this year’s Interdrone conference in Las Vegas.

Local, state and federal agencies, as well as companies across verticals, turned to drones to identify, assess and assist in the aftermath of the devastating Category 4 hurricane. Here are some examples of how UAVs were used in disaster response and recovery:

  • Fire departments and county emergency management officials used commercialUAVs to check for damage to roads, as well as to inspect bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants to determine infrastructure that required immediate repair.
  • Search and rescue workers used commercial UAVs to find civilians in desperate and unsafe conditions.
  • A railroad company used commercial UAVs to survey damage to a rail line.
  • Oil and energy companies used commercial UAVs to spot damage to their flooded infrastructure.
  • Telecom companies deployed commercial UAVs to assess damage to their towers and associated ground equipment.
  • Insurance companies used commercial UAVs to assess damage to neighborhoods.

In many situations, Huerta said that these unmanned aircraft were able to conduct low-level operations more efficiently and safely than manned aircraft.  Most local airports were either closed or dedicated to emergency relief flights in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Huerta said, and fuel supplies were critically low.

“Every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting additional strain on an already fragile situation,” he said.

Huerta’ discussion of the important role drones played in the disaster response to Hurricane Harvey also came with some self-congratulation: He cited the FAA’s ability to quickly authorize unmanned aircraft as a critical to the success of these operations.

Much of the airspace above Harvey-damaged areas was subject to temporary flight restrictions that required the FAA’s authorization. Flooded with authorization requests, Huerta said the FAA decided that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. Because of this game-time decision, the agency was able to approve most cases of individual UAV operations within minutes of receiving the request.

By the end of last week, the FAA had issued over 100 authorizations of unmanned aircraft.

It’s a step in the right direction for an oversight agency that’s gotten  flak in the last year– as Huertas pointed out — following the rollout of its new regulations targeting small unmanned aircraft.

Disaster response is just one example of the role commercial UAVs have — and will continue to have — across enterprises. Huerta said people will continue to be surprised by how and where drones will be used, comparing the evolution of these unmanned devices to the early days of aircraft.

“A century ago, people couldn’t foresee that clunky wooden fabric biplanes would morph into sleek aluminum jets, some capable of flying at supersonic speeds,” Huerta said. “And today we can’t possibly predict everything drones will be doing five or 10 years down the line; maybe even five  or 10 months down the line.”