Flying drones in disaster areas
After hurricanes Harvey and Irma wrought havoc last year, experts in storm water management helped disaster response teams assess infrastructure damage, chart floodwater recession, predict additional flood risk and more. They did so using a fast and efficient tool—Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), aka “drones”—as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began to promote the controlled use of UAS for disaster relief. With the Atlantic hurricane season in full swing, storm water managers could be called upon to do it all again. To reduce risk, they should pay careful attention to the bureaucratic and logistical concerns that can come into play.
Even for a licensed pilot, flying a drone after a natural disaster is hardly business as usual. Federal officials will not hesitate to impose penalties for violations of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) enforced in the wake of such events. If local police feel a drone is interfering with them, they might even blow it out of the sky, as is permissible under California law.
Fortunately, with respect to the federal government, UAS operators now may be able to secure expedited waivers or authorizations via FAA’s Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process. This could allow them to fly in TFRs at night or beyond the visual line of sight. Specifically, FAA lists two UAS activities relevant to storm water managers as potentially qualifying for expedited approvals: “utility or other critical infrastructure restoration” and “incident awareness and analysis.” If a proposed UAS flight is to be conducted within a disaster TFR, the UAS operator may need to pre-coordinate with officials to ensure the proposed mission is appropriate and safe. Toward this end, UAS operators can use the FAA website to download emergency operation request forms, which then can be emailed to FAA’s Systems Operations Support Center (SOSC).
It also may be a good idea to leverage the contact information on FAA’s UAS-specific pages. When disaster strikes, officials are hard to reach. Talking to them before an event provides the opportunity to ask and answer key questions. It also enables UAS operators to forge ties with officials and demonstrate their own credentials and capabilities. Now is the time to engage in such discussions and integrate what you find into your planning process.
Under the federal SGI process, the SOSC will evaluate whether the proposed operation meets certain criteria, such as whether the operator is under the authority of an active Certificate of Authorization (COA) or in compliance with Part 107, or whether the operation will be conducted within the required timeframe. In particular, the operation must be run by a governmental entity or flown at the request of and/or specifically supported by a governmental entity, as judged by SOSC. For these expedited approvals, FAA has pledged to contact applicants within an hour regarding their requests. If the operation is approved, the FAA will add an authorization amendment to the operator’s existing COA or Remote Pilot Certificate. The practicality here reflects FAA’s commitment to integrate drones into U.S. aviation. Federal officials want to work with UAS operators; their goal is simply to maintain the safety and effectiveness of disaster response.
It also is important to think about on-the-ground logistics. After Harvey and Irma, UAS operators struggled to find power to recharge their drones, along with gas, hotels and even drinking water. Some lost their GPS navigation capabilities; others struggled to communicate with local officials, or found themselves in the path of a hurricane that had changed course. Flying drones in disaster areas can be dangerous. Rely on experts to help you create checklists and plans that improve safety and mitigate risk. In the years to come, both the technology and the regulatory process are likely to continue to evolve in positive ways.