Amid Murky Legal Waters, Civilian Drone Operator Enables Rescue of Hurricane Matthew Flood Victim

News outlets are reporting this week that the actions of a civilian drone operator led to the discovery and rescue of a North Carolina resident who was trapped in his flooded home during Hurricane Matthew. The flood victim, Chris Williams of Hope Mills, North Carolina, found himself stranded with his dog as storm waters rapidly filled the house. Unable to reach emergency services, he contacted his brother Craig for help via Facebook Messenger. Craig Williams scanned social media for news about the flood, and found a recently posted picture on Twitter of his brother’s flooded neighborhood. He contacted the account holder, Quavas Hart, for help. It turns out Hart had taken the photo via unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and still was in the area. He flew the drone back out to identify Chris Williams’ home, and was preparing to deploy by boat when he noticed a FEMA rescue boat nearby. Hart used the drone to signal the rescue boat and direct the crew toward Chris Williams’ home. The FEMA crew successfully rescued both Chris Williams and his dog from the flooded home.

This civilian drone-initiated search and rescue mission comes at a contentious time for the relationship between first responders and civilian drones. The proliferation of hobbyist and commercial UAS use in the United States has created a headache for first responders, many of whom have reported civilian UAS interference with response to emergencies such as wildfires. In light of these concerns, states and localities have begun to take matters into their own hands. Just last month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that protects from civil liability first responders who damage a drone that is interfering with emergency response. In addition, federal law makes civilian rescue operations such as Hart’s a legally questionable undertaking. Although Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 expressly denies the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) jurisdiction to regulate the operations of drones flown for hobby or recreational purposes, the agency can initiate enforcement actions against any individuals who operate UAS in a manner that is careless or reckless, interferes with manned aircraft, violates FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), or otherwise endangers the safety of the national airspace system. In regard to Hurricane Matthew specifically, the FAA cautioned last week that authorized aircraft may be flying at low altitudes as part of hurricane response operations, and that any UAS operator who interferes with disaster response efforts is subject to civil penalties and possible criminal prosecution.

The rescue of Chris Williams raises interesting questions about the role of civilian drones in emergency response operations. Although the FAA and state and local governments likely will continue to maintain that safe emergency response depends on a sky free of civilian drones, in this particular case, first responders may not have found the victim in time if not for Hart’s UAS operations and his decision to share the drone-collected photos on social media.

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