Texas Flood Tests Use of Drones by Emergency Responders

June 8, 2015 | Emergency Management Magazine

Compared to the time, cost and challenges associated with using helicopters for search and rescue, drones could be a game-changer for the future of emergency response.

Drone photography could soon take off for Victoria, Texas’ emergency responders.

Compared to the time, cost and challenges associated with using helicopters for search and rescue, drones could be a game-changer for the future of emergency response, said Emergency Management Coordinator Rick McBrayer.

Emergency responders used a drone at no cost to taxpayers to track in real time the Guadalupe River flood through Victoria. Now, officials are exploring the legality and permitting process to use drones again.

It’s not unheard of in Texas. The Federal Aviation Administration gave Arlington Police Department permission in 2013 to use the devices and has approved about 500 commercial drone exemptions nationwide.

A Victoria firefighter and drone hobbyist provided the device used at the emergency operations center.

“It proved that it’s just a fantastic tool,” said Fire Chief Taner Drake. “It just opened everybody’s eyes that we had video footage of stuff we’d have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to get.”

The river took a change in course and sent water eastward through the original townsite rather than the expected route through the Greens Addition, which is south of the Moody Street bridge.

The footage captured during the flood will be analyzed against a time stamp and water levels to update the river’s floodplain maps.

“The drone gave us footage of stuff that they’ve never had outside of an aerial flyover,” Drake said. “He could narrow it down to the scope of a street and just fly that.”

Officials said they consider it an asset in tracking the flood, but they recognize the technology raises red flags about personal privacy.

“We made sure our guy was in uniform, driving a marked vehicle so nobody thought he wasn’t where he shouldn’t be or doing things he shouldn’t be doing,” Drake said. “I know there’s a public perception of invasion of privacy and some other concerns … Our intent was to get a real look at what was happening on the river.”

Drake said the scope of use would need to be clearly defined. Using the device for any other purpose would have repercussions.

Victoria spokesman O.C. Garza said the device used during the flood was a DJI Inspire 1.

That model starts at $2,900, weighs about 6.5 pounds and has a maximum flight altitude of almost 3 miles.

Hobbyists do not need approval from the FAA to fly drones for recreation, so long as it’s not near people or structures, not flown recklessly over vehicles and not flown above 400 feet.

Drones, which fall under the same guidelines for model aircrafts, cannot be flown for recreation or hobby over a stadium, at airshows or sporting events.

John Borden, another drone hobbyist, joined in documenting the Victoria flooding.

“I didn’t even have to cross a barricade,” Borden, 44, said. “Who knows, what if I had seen a kayaker hanging on to a tree? It has more good than bad.”

He flies a DJI Phantom 2+ with built-in safety features that alerts the operator when it’s nearing an altitude of 400 feet. The price for that device starts at $700, according to the manufacturer’s website.

After national scandals involving government spying, the National Security Administration and other conspiracies, Borden said it’s no wonder people are leery.

“There’s this whole idea that ‘Big Brother is watching,'” Borden said. “People just assume it’s someone spying.”

At this time, drone photography cannot legally be used for commercial work. He shoots footage for free for news organizations, charities and friends.

Borden said he thinks the FAA and other regulatory agencies will see the good in it, but he remains realistic about the downside.

“A few idiots are going to ruin it for everybody,” Borden said. “Someone is going to use it as a peeping-tom thing, then you’re going to see a lot more restrictions on rural areas and where you can fly.”

Governments and first responders should be able to use them, he said.

Drones already are being tested for use in farming, ranching and wildlife management.

Tuesday, crews from Texas A&M Corpus Christi launched a drone on a nearly 6 1/2-mile flight test.

Using infrared cameras, the crew tested how the technology could be ideal for wildlife inventory, monitoring animal populations that are more active at night, such as ocelots, an endangered species with fewer than 130 living in Texas.

McBrayer, Victoria’s emergency management coordinator, is already envisioning ways the technology can be used in damage assessments.

It’s not just the time and cost savings, the device can help keep first responders from unnecessarily walking into unsafe conditions.

“In the 1998 flood, they had a helicopter go up, and I can only imagine the cost associated with that,” McBrayer said. “They flew the whole loop, the major roadways, the river bank through Victoria. I can see the economic impact of using a drone for that.”

©2015 Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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