Drones to the Rescue

A new tool is emerging to assist in disaster-relief efforts: drones.  Drones are playing a big role as Houston and south Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey.  Although the FAA has imposed a Temporary Flight Restriction limiting aircraft in the disaster region, it has issued 127 unmanned aircraft system authorizations to operators aiding the recovery.  These authorizations are for operations using drones to help locate and rescue victims; survey the damage caused by the flooding; inspect critical infrastructure like railroads, bridges, power lines, and cell towers; ensure communications among first responders; and help insurance companies assess damage to homes and businesses to speed up the claims process.  The FAA also issued authorizations to media covering the hurricane, who provided the world incredible images of the damage.   

People have used drones in disaster-relief efforts before.  Last year, 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.  But the use of drones is more widespread and recognized in this effort, marking an important milestone for drones that will almost certainly lead to their increased use in future disaster-relief efforts.  Interestingly, some of the authorized operations in Texas – such as flying beyond the operator’s visual line-of-sight – are prohibited under current rules, foreshadowing possible rule changes that will make drones more effective in these (and other) situations.

As drones become an increasingly popular disaster-relief tool, new and innovative uses – from delivering food and supplies to conducting broader search-and-rescue missions – will come as well.  These uses will help speed recovery times for areas hit by natural disasters.

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