Recent Success Stories After the Introduction of Drones
A little over a year ago, the debate over the introduction of UASs into the US airspace was filled with strongly worded statements about the risks associated with this disruptive technology. Others, equally vociferously, asserted that these new aerial vehicles will provide a boost to aviation and the nation. Since then, there have been reports from pilots about near misses as well as interesting articles about how drones have created new dimensions of commerce.
Here are two lines of stories about the good of the introduction of drones:
YouTube and other internet information sources have shown videos of various birds taking umbrage at drones invading their airspace. Historically, airplanes and birds do not mix well.
This is a story about a UAS helping a grounded gyrfalcon. Steve Schwartze, a professional falconer and wildlife consultant from Lethbridge, Alberta, used his robotic physiotherapist. The drone carries a bit of pigeon attached to an orange parachute and then the training target is released. The gyrfalcon instinctively responded flies at the bait and “snatched the dangling wing from the drone and didn’t let go. The parachute was yanked out of its mooring and then ballooned open so that the falcon, chute, and disembodied wing drifted down into the yellow stubble of the farmer’s field.”
This is the end result of a progressive regime which helped restore the injured falcon’s strength.
Though not always successful, the above picture shows Schwartze releasing his patient after completing drone school.
2. Helping in Houston’s Hurricane Recovery
This string of stories shows that the UAS advocates’ vision was correct and it starts with stories showing how the FAA’s regulatory regime responded to this challenge with flexibility—
The FAA issued 43 unmanned aircraft system authorizations to drone operators supporting the response and recovery for Hurricane Harvey or covering it as part of the media. These grants included:
i. broad range of activities by local, state and federal officials who are conducting damage assessments of critical infrastructure, homes and businesses to help target, prioritize and expedite recovery activities.
ii. eight of the approvals to a railroad company to survey damage along a major rail line running through the city. Five others were issued so oil or energy companies could look for damage to their facilities, fuel tanks, power lines, and other critical components of the local power grid.
iii. A local fire department and county emergency management officials are operating drones to check for any damage to local roads, bridges, underpasses, water treatment plants, and other infrastructure that may need immediate repairs.
iv. State environmental quality officials are flying drones to understand the impacts of flooding and drainage, and cell tower operators are conducting damage assessments of their structures and associated ground equipment. An operator supporting a number of different insurance companies has started on damage assessments of residences and businesses to speed up the claims process.
v. four media outlets are operating drones over Houston to provide ongoing coverage to local residents and the rest of the world about flooding and damage in the Houston area.
By Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized 43 drone operators in Harvey’s wake, for recovery efforts and for news organizations covering it, including the USA TODAY Network.
But the FAA has also prohibited private drone pilots from flying in a broad area around Houston to avoid areas where emergency aircraft such as rescue helicopters are plucking people from rooftops or searching for survivors. Drones spotted near firefighting aircraft in California last year had prompted the planes and helicopters to land to avoid the risk of collisions.
The FAA is “targeting the responsible members of the various communities who are responding to this type of catastrophe, whether it’s the first responders, the insurance industry or the news media, said Mark Dombroff, a partner at Denton’s aviation-law practice. “This is an object lesson in the utility, the usefulness, the effectiveness of drones.”
Responding to the disaster provides a major test—and opportunity—for the country’s fast-growing network of professional UAV operators, almost exactly one year after the Federal Aviation Administration began to hand out licenses for commercial drone operation. (There are at least 2,000 licensed pilots in the Houston area alone, and some 20,300 nationwide.)
“This is the one of the first big disasters where we can show how valuable drones can be,” says Brandon Stark, who directs the Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety at the University of California, Merced. In the coming weeks and months, they’ll help locals assess damage to homes, roads, bridges, power lines, oil and gas facilities, and office buildings—and determine whether it’s safe to go back.
Swoop and Assess
As Harvey approached, the FAA did what it usually does in emergencies: It restricted air space in the affected region. That means commercial and private aircraft, including professionally operated drones, are banned from the area until the government says otherwise. “Unauthorized drone operators may prevent the response and recovery aircraft from safely doing their jobs,” says Laura Brown, an FAA spokesperson.
Of course, it’s been clear for a long time now that drones can help save lives, whether by increasing visibility of an impact zone, using a drone to transport life-saving medicine or tools to areas unreachable via ground transportation, or simply monitoring the rapid changes of the elements down below. This is something the FAA learned quite quickly, as they began issuing more and more authorizations for drone use in the affected areas. According to the Wall Street Journal, these ranged from monitoring water plants, oil refineries, power lines, and other critical infrastructures that would be unreachable without aerial vehicles.
Reportedly, the steep increase in drone authorizations went from 70 on Friday to 100 by Sunday. These were all operated under authorization of local, state, or federal agencies, and pushed through within several hours – which isn’t usually the case for safety regulators and flight authorizations.
It will be fascinating to see how the use of UASs evolves as operators explore their potential! Good job industry and FAA.
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