Drones can help rescuers search for missing people, provide cell phone service and look for hotspots during wildfires.
BEAUREGARD, Ala. – With roads blocked by fallen trees after the deadly tornado here that killed 23, the first few rescuers climbed fields of debris to search for survivors, but there weren’t enough of them to cover such a wide area.
But they soon got eyes in the air – in the form of infrared-equipped drones.
Rescuers used the drones to find the remnants of homes in areas that were tough to reach, then to send teams to clear the way to the search site.
“We’ve used drones in the last couple of years for different operations, but this is the first time we’ve used it for extensive search and recovery,” Lee County, Alabama, Sheriff Jay Jones said. “It gave us an overhead view of areas that we might’ve missed had we been at eye level on land.”
The storm becomes the latest disaster in which drones have played an important role, whether it was Hurricane Harvey, which caused catastrophic flooding in Houston, or wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in California.
Because many are equipped with infrared sensors, drones can be used to detect a heat signature from survivors or, in the case of wildfires, show where firefighters need to go to quell flare-ups. They can let search dog crews know where it is safe to enter a burn zone so the canines won’t burn their paws.
As technology improves, drones are getting new capabilities such as loudspeakers and spotlights.
Police and fire agencies across the country continue to add drones for disaster preparedness and to find new uses for them, such as creating before-and-after maps of devastation to checking the status of damaged dams or other crucial infrastucture. They can go where people safely can’t, such as areas where hazardous material has spilled.
About 900 state and local police, fire and other emergency units are using the unmanned aircraft, the New York Police Department said in December in announcing its own drone program.
“The cost of drones is so small compared to the value they provide,” said Brandon Stark, director of the University of California’s Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety. “A drone can get closer to the action than with a helicopter.”
In the Alabama tornado, Jones said drones have made searching for survivors far more efficient, which is important given how the twister cut such a wide swath across the region.
Opelika, Alabama, Fire Chief Byron Prather said drone flyovers helped pinpoint where rescue crews were most needed. Prather, who was part of the Lee County search, said he knew the value of infrared drone technology from rescues of victims in structure fires.
“It’s a great benefit when you’re looking for a (person’s) heat signature of 98 degrees when the ambient temperature is 60 degrees. Something like that is going to stand out,” Prather said. “Ten years ago, it wasn’t available. That’s technology helping us do our job better.”
Drones have proved especially valuable during hurricanes. After Hurricane Harvey left much of Houston flooded in 2017, drones not only aided with rescue operations but also were used to keep tabs on how inundated infrastructure was holding up, said Robin Murphy, a computer science and engineering professor at Texas A&M University.
They also were used to create videos that could show residents in flooded neighborhoods the dangers of trying to re-enter them. She said that in the case of Harvey alone, 10 pilots using nine different models of drones flew 112 flights. There were similarly large responses and uses of drones in hurricanes Irma and Michael.
Drone technology continues to improve. Computer vision and machine learning are being employed to process images faster and more thoroughly than responders can, Murphy said.
Some of the new features coming to drones will make them even more capable. Adding spotlights to drones will help them find victims at night. Speakers can let rescuers tell victims to stay put and that help is on the way, said Romeo Durscher, director of public safety integration for drone maker DJI.
“In the beginning, we didn’t really know all the capability used during these large-scale events. We were able to see what works and doesn’t work,” Durscher said. As the company liaison, he works directly with agencies, including being called out to disaster scenes to help drone crews.
In Alabama, Chris Darden helped test the use of drones for damage assessment when he was in charge of the National Weather Service’s Huntsville office. On Tuesday, he was in Beauregard, one of the hardest-hit areas of Lee County.
Darden said his team planned to have a drone in the air within the next few days to better assess the tornado’s path and damage – knowledge that could help with future storms:
“Sometimes, it can take a tragedy to open your eyes to new tools you have available.”
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