Drone ‘Disaster Tourism’ Disrupts Work in Texas Recovery

Drone ‘disaster tourism’ is hindering the response to aid first responders and inspection critical infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a massive hurricane that ravaged Texas and other areas along the Gulf Coast.

According to Bloomberg,

The mass destruction brought on by Hurricane Harvey has been a seminal moment for drone operators, proving that they can effectively map flooding, locate people in need of rescue and verify damage to speed insurance claims. But the event has also illustrated the downside of a technology that has expanded so widely it has attracted irresponsible users who have hampered emergency crews.

The FAA last year approved regulations for the first time allowing routine commercial small-drone flights, making the influx after Harvey possible. Still, flights are limited to low altitudes and operators must keep the devices within sight. The agency didn’t respond to an email request for comment on whether it had begun any enforcement actions related to recent flights in Texas.

“In any young industry, during pivotal moments in its development, there are going to be positives and there are going to be missteps and mistakes that you need to learn from,” said Brian Scott, a drone company owner who was part of an impromptu team known as Humanitarian Drones that helped local officials in Houston, Port Arthur and Rockport.

In Rockport, which is on the Gulf of Mexico coast and suffered extensive damage, their team of six drones was able to photograph 1,650 homes, turning over the data to local government officials, Scott said. The data will be used in the community’s application for U.S. disaster assistance, he said.

“We’ve essentially done in two and a half days what it would have taken them two weeks to do on the ground,” he said. “That’s the kind of efficiency we’ve lent to them.”

The aforementioned Humanitarian Drones were all licensed to fly by the FAA to conduct commercial drone operations and received special permission to fly in some restricted zones. However, some of their work was hindered by amateur drone enthusiasts, many of whom did not have permission to operate their drones in the wake of Harvey.

Houston Fire Department drone pilot Patrick Hagan encountered a different problem: there still isn’t a formal system of keeping drones and the emergency helicopters that swarmed the city apart.

Hagan said the dozen missions he flew last week to document the extent of flooding in Houston provided valuable information that would have been difficult or far more costly to obtain. But he often flew no higher than tree-top level because the emergency helicopters criss-crossing the city had no way of seeing where he was.

An air-traffic system for small drones at low altitudes doesn’t exist and very few of the devices are equipped with the tracking beacons that can be seen by FAA controllers or other aircraft. As a result, managing drones in an emergency environment is still “a work in progress,” Hagan said.

He also encountered two people who were flying drones illegally even though the FAA had issued an order not to fly over the city. One was a teenage boy, he said.

There is no doubt that drones can be useful in the wake of disasters. But it seems clear that local governments need the authority to regulate drone use, especially during an emergency.

Legislation enacted in 2015 made Maryland one of only three states to grant the state government exclusive power to regulate drone usage, preempting municipalities and counties from enacting their own ordinances. MACo opposed this legislation as a preemption of county authority and was able to secure an amendment to assess the need for new laws or local tools after three years of industry maturation.

MACo, along with the Maryland State Police, are among the stakeholders charged with evaluating any safety or security problems arising from drone use as the industry expands in the years ahead. The stakeholder group will report its findings to the governor in 2018.

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