Unmanned aerial systems (UASs), known to most as drones, are useful aircraft. Just ask the military, which has used them (often clandestinely) for years, or the hobbyists who shoot breathtaking, perspective-altering videos using them.
But the responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida offer yet another perspective. The lessons learned underscore just how useful drones are today, and offer some hope that regulators are prepared to support, rather than impede, their integration into the National Airspace System.
Soon after Harvey passed, areas in and around Houston were facing epic flooding. Almost immediately, FAA began receiving requests from drone operators to fly missions in the area. Because of airport damage and generally horrific conditions, FAA restricted flying in most of the affected area’s airspace, limiting it to essential aircraft—first responders and the like—only.
Drones were quickly added to the list, as FAA Administrator Michael Huerta explained:
[We] basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request.
FAA issued more than 130 exemptions, and drone operators put their aircraft to work.
A railroad company used drones to survey damage to a rail line that cuts through Houston.
Energy suppliers—a Houston-area staple—flew drones to assess damage to their flooded infrastructure.
Unmanned aircraft helped a fire department and county emergency management officials check for damage to roads, bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants.
Even insurance companies used them to survey damage and, in some cases, begin to process claims before property owners got back to see the damage for themselves. One company, Airbus Aerial, helps insurance companies by combining data from drones, manned aircraft and satellite data to give a clearer overall image of specific locations before and after an incident.
A similar scene played out after Hurricane Irma struck Florida, leaving some 6 million residents without power.
Florida Power and Light (FPL) hired nearly 50 drone teams to survey parts of the state left accessible by vehicles. Some of the drone operators FPL hired were flying within an hour after the storm winds subsided.
All of it helped recovery efforts, without creating more challenges.
“Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” FAA’s Huerta said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.