Drones: The future of disaster response
Fireflight's Scout is a light, portable unmanned aerial vehicle that its maker says is easy to launch and recover.
May 23rd, 2013
01:29 PM ET

Drones: The future of disaster response

By Heather Kelly, CNN

First responders to Monday's massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, were greeted with a blighted expanse of destroyed homes, blocked roads, downed power lines and a limited window of time to unearth survivors before the sun set.

Navigating the area on foot or by car was a challenge because of the debris. News and law-enforcement helicopters filled the air above, but while they gathered useful information for rescue crews, the noise they created was drowning out cries for help from trapped survivors.

The entire area was declared a no-fly zone.

But one airborne technology will soon make responding to these kinds disasters easier: unmanned automated vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called drones. These portable, affordable aircraft can launch quickly in dangerous situations, locate survivors and send data about their whereabouts to responders on the ground.

There is a lot of excitement about drones in the public-safety world, and they are very close to being used in the field after natural disasters. However, they still face lengthy regulatory hurdles, privacy concerns, and a public image problem inherited from their armed, military cousins.

Holder: Drone strikes have killed four Americans

Still, the UAV industry and emergency responders are preparing for the day when they can launch drones after tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and any other disaster.

"The public just isn't really in the habit of depending on them," said James Stuckey, CEO of Fireflight, an Oklahoma-based drone company. "When they start, they won't be able to do without them."

Drone power

The benefits of drones in an emergency are reach, speed, safety and cost. When there is no power, a UAV can fly through the dark and live-stream night-vision footage to people on the ground, its paths automatically programmed so it doesn't miss a spot. A mounted infrared camera can pick up on heat signatures of bodies, pinpointing the locations of survivors so rescuers know where to go.

Unlike manned helicopters, drones create very little sound and can even be outfitted with advanced listening devices to pick up hard-to-hear audio. They can go into dangerous situations that would pose a risk to pilots or responders on foot. While helicopter propellers can stir up debris and dust, UAVs weigh as little as three pounds and don't disturb what's on the ground, even when they're hovering just 10 feet above it.

Fireflight's unmanned aerial vehicles were designed to be used in wildfires. They're outfitted with infrared cameras that can see through smoke.

Prices for commercial UAVs range from $15,000 to $50,000 - a fraction of what a helicopter costs. They can fit in the trunk of a car and be up in the air in no time.

"It's usually 45 minutes to an hour after you arrive on scene on an incident before you get real information," said Fireflight's Stuckey, a veteran firefighter of 27 years. "We can have [a UAV] up in the air in three minutes."

Roadblocks to use

The American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma was considering using Fireflight's UAVs immediately after the tornado, but didn't because of the no-fly zone, according to Steve Klapp, the regional disaster assessment manager.

The Red Cross chapter has used UAVs in tests before, such as in a disaster-assessment exercise in March. On Wednesday it considered using the aircraft to gather boundary data at the tornado scene, but Klapp said he would probably end up getting the information from other sources this time.

"We're definitely planning to use them more in the future," said Klapp. "It's a question of the right situation."

The Oklahoma National Guard is also on the ground in Moore and has trained with drones for use in Afghanistan, but said it did not deploy any in the disaster area.

The main delay, according to Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit trade association for drone companies, is that the Federal Aviation Administration is very restrictive about who can fly a drone and how they can fly it. Congress has given the FAA until 2015 to come up with rules for flying UAVs in U.S. airspace, including safety regulations, how pilots need to be trained, how an aircraft is certified, and the process for notifying local air-traffic controllers.

Until those regulations are in place, any civilian or military organization that wants to fly drones above 400 feet needs to get a special waiver from the agency. This is a lengthy process that can take one or more years, according to Gielow, although the FAA claims to have shaved it down to an average of 60 days.

There is an exception for emergencies, which would expedite the application process, but it does not appear to be widely used for disasters.

A life saver

Disaster response is just one use for drones by public safety agencies, which the AUVSI predicts will account for 10% of the future drone industry. Stuckey created Fireflight's unmanned aircraft specifically to help fire departments gather information during Oklahoma's wildfire seasons, the last three of which have been especially vicious.

Thermal-imaging cameras can be used to see through smoke, and the UAVs can go into areas that would be too dangerous for manned aircraft.

One of the first reported cases of a drone saving someone's life occurred three weeks ago. A man was driving along a highway at night in Canada when his vehicle rolled of the road, knocking him unconscious. It was dark, with near-freezing temperatures, and emergency workers were unable to locate the car and injured driver, even with night-vision goggles and a helicopter.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police deployed an unmanned aircraft with an infrared camera, which picked up on the man's heat signature.

And the types of tools that can be attached to a UAV are growing beyond cameras and weapons. New equipment allows drones to hear gunshots, detect chemical levels, track RFID tags, and measure radiation.

Privacy concerns

The most controversial domestic use is by law enforcement agencies interested in using drones for surveillance and to fight crime, a prospect that has privacy advocates and other citizens on edge. According to Gielow, only three law-enforcement agencies currently have approval to fly drones in the U.S.: The Mesa County Sheriffs office in Colorado, the Grand Forks Sheriff's Department in North Dakota, and the Arlington Police Department in Texas.

Privacy advocates fear the drones could be used for surveillance of anyone. The UAVs track people with the same advanced software being used in regular surveillance cameras.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been pushing the FAA to release details on all the public-safety agencies, military and security organizations and other groups that have been given permits to fly drones in U.S. airspace. The civil liberties group has even plotted all the known drone programs on an interactive map.

People in the drone industry don't think a blanket ban on UAVs is the answer to privacy concerns.

"The issue should not be focused on how you take that picture," said Gielow. "You can get the same thing from a manned helicopter, satellite, security camera or smartphone."

Instead, Gielow thinks people should focus on how the government uses and stores images of citizens, not the tools used to capture them.

A booming industry

Many other government agencies are already testing out drones. NASA is using them to monitor hurricanes, NOAA employs them in the Arctic to monitor wildlife and the USGS is using them for mapping and environmental studies.

While public safety and the military get the most attention for drone use, the biggest market for UAVs will actually be agriculture, according to the AUVSI. Up to 80% of drones will be used on farms, where they will track cattle, check on the health and hydration of crops, and even dispense pesticides.

The UAV industry is set to break open in the coming year. According to the AUVSI, the drone industry will create 70,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $13.6 billion in its first three years once the FAA establishes regulations.

Meanwhile, the aerospace industry is getting ready for the potentially lucrative drone age. Twenty-six states, including Oklahoma, are currently competing for six coveted FAA contracts for UAV test sites that will be used to collect more information about how to regulate the technology. The winning states will be announced later this year.

Silicon Valley also is paying attention. Earlier this month, a startup called Airware that's developed an open operating system for UAVs raised $10.7 million in investment funding. Most of Airware's customers are in countries like Japan and France, where the technology is more wildly used.

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soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. In home Personal Training

    Anything that helps locate survivors is a huge deal.I love the direction we are going in when it comes to drones.

    April 6, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Reply
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    June 20, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
  3. Downed

    Now this is a positive use of drones.

    May 28, 2013 at 10:25 am | Reply
  4. Mike

    Interesting article. But the author needs to understand the difference between the words "widely" and "wildly" – they are not the same!

    May 28, 2013 at 2:53 am | Reply
  5. Ponchos Raincoat

    My drone can beat up your drone! Yea!

    May 27, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  6. Me

    Oh no, someone might use a drone to watch me walk across my lawn, what will I ever do??

    May 27, 2013 at 10:19 am | Reply
  7. alpinequeen

    In 1968, my husband put a super 8 movie camera on his Enya .29 powered Trisquire and the guys at the club loved the film.

    May 26, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  8. cplB

    I love how my last comment got censored...nice way to let a oif vet know on memorial day weekend that this isn't the land of the free anymore. What a joke this country becomes by the day. From the government to the idiot people...none of you are safe from my critical views of yourselves.

    May 26, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  9. mexoplex

    It's Sputnik all over again for some of you huh?

    May 26, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
  10. JC

    The potential of all technology to be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes.. Sadly we gravitate towards the bad despite the harm it causes!

    May 26, 2013 at 6:27 am | Reply
  11. Comcam

    I believe with proper use in emergency mgmt it can save lives. I also know in combat; they save lives. However, they're dangerous when overused and weaponized. BTW- I suffer PTSD from Iraq – partially due to strike videos. God Bless America! She is a true influence for good and bad.... Just pick your leaders well and not based on 'red herring' issues.

    May 26, 2013 at 1:35 am | Reply
    • Pablo

      All weapons are dangerous. We only need weapons to deter those who would do us harm. We hope our weapons are more advanced than theirs.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  12. joe

    No doubt about it, from crime fighting to disaster relief to wars-drones are the future.

    May 25, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • fritzz

      You think you can trust someone like Bushler to not use them on your own people. They would be great for crowd control.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  13. Jaimie

    I fly rc airplanes and fly at my clubs runway(field). Now because of the anticipated problems with rc aircraft in the USA there are more stringent rules to follow. All club members do follow the rules. The USA government is worried about those rogue individuals that can cause harm with rc aircraft. When a VIP is flying into a town they close all rc fields down and we cannot fly. The same goes when they leave. I understand, but we are not the bad guys. Because of terrorist we all are affected in one way or another.

    May 25, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • Freedom Storm

      Which terrorists? Middle eastern terrorists or Al Capone-in-chief terrorists?

      May 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  14. rohug

    See one of those flying over my house it won't be flying anymore. It really is 1984!

    May 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • card51short

      no way man the drones are to keep you safe! government loves you!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Reply
      • Pablo

        Oh sure. Lets tie the governments hands. Don't let use technology to track terrorist. Make them be politically correct and don't even let them refer to terrorist. It won't take many more episodes like 9/11 or the Boston bombing to do away with all that nonsense and let law enforcement do their jobs. If they fly a drone over my house, they won't see anything illegal so I'm not too worried.

        May 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • That's just crazy talk

      LOL! Oops my bad, thought it was a wild turkey and it looked too delicious to not bring it down.

      May 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  15. Jethro

    You've got to question the motivation behind pro-drone articles like this one written by Heather Kelly. "Hey everybody, drones are good! Don't you want drones flying over your neighborhood? You should!"

    May 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • Pablo

      Do you have something to hide? They can fly over my backyard. They won't see anything illegal.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  16. xyzthegreat

    use them just for terrorists, please

    May 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  17. Burt Ward

    I had the privilege of seeing the March test they mentioned above. It was coordinated with the damage assessment training going on at the same location. This is a us company making a wireless product that will be launched during a wildfire. The faster the fire command knows about the situation the better he/she can deploy resources. In regards to a larger disaster, it can help identify locations of victims and make resource deployments more effective. Preventing waste is key in this situation.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Candid One

      Amen, but what's being a drag on deployment progress is the inherent complexity of many emergency scenarios. Coordination is vital. Nobody wants a surveillance drone to bring down a Medevac helicopter. The emergency response agencies need to coordinate before, during and after. Protocols need to be developed and shared. Good intentions aren't enough.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
      • John3

        I could see also an application for drones in precise drops of survival supplies, rescue radios & medicines

        May 25, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  18. EG

    They always start out by explaining how these such things cans benefit th public to make them more easily exceptable by the public. However, over time they will began showing up hovering over your backyard or peering into your bedroom window.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • Candid One

      Your neighbor's kid is already doing that.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • Pablo

      Got something to hide EG?

      May 26, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  19. Abdul Abdullah Akbar Anwar Sadat

    Drones have killed zero US citizens. People killed in Yemen on training missions to conduct sleeper cell terror acts in the USA, are NOT U.S. citizens.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • Jethro

      Hey genius, check your facts. Drones have killed four U.S. citizens so far.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
      • Pablo

        Yeah, they may be citizens but they were operating as enemy combatants. They should be eliminated.

        May 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  20. Bhawk1

    People are so odd. Today we are just one Railroad strike from drone trains, we don't need pilots on airlines anymore and people think they own their air space. People think its horrific that a machine could be used to against them– yes there is a pilotless craft–except there is one a distance away-no outrage about the camera on the drone just the drone. Outlaw cameras then the drone is nothing.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • Bhawk1

      Let me add that under the 2nd amendment your neighbor could own an armed drone to do away with you or your barking dog.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
      • Pablo

        He can do that with a shotgun.

        May 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  21. allens

    what stupidity

    May 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  22. 7th Congressional District, Virginia

    Thank you, CNN, for a lovely infomercial touting the benefits of drones, brought to you and funded by people who make drones. Just curious, did anyone at this crappy company actually graduate from journalism school? Take a few online journalism classes? Watch Walter Cronkite once?

    CNN sucks.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  23. Lori

    Helper drones!! Yeah....NO.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:19 am | Reply
  24. UAV_Guy

    I know some people are scared of what they don't know but COME ON! These things are not going to take away any privacy that hasn't been stripped from you already. You should be worrying more about internet usage and somebody obtaining your financial information. I GUARANTEE there is 1000 times more danger on the internet than you will ever experience from UAV's.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:06 am | Reply
    • Candid One

      Amen, every nearby smartphone has an active video camera. Today's digital photo cameras are now capable of available light use, which means that they don't need to use a photo flash that would indicate their action. Pocket zoom cameras are compact and increasingly powerful. Micro cameras are so mobile and user-friendly that they're becoming "toys". Private uses, private surveillance isn't inhibited by political correctness. Your neighbors may know more about you than you realize.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • clevercandi

      well said!

      May 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • card51short

      cant we be worried about internet privacy and drone privacy? your name is uav_guy so youre not exactly an objective observor.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  25. UAV_Guy

    I hate calling these things drones. Make's them sound all ominous. They are remote piloted aircraft. UAV's. I work with them daily and it's just a flying computer with some sitcom equipment attached. Most are helpful and about as intrusive as a semi-persistent paparazzi!

    May 24, 2013 at 9:56 am | Reply
    • Candid One

      "Drone" is the generic nomenclature. "Unmanned" is a driverless or pilotless vehicle. Both are interchangeable. "Drone" was the most common term for pilotless aircraft fifty years ago. "UAV" is also used and it's commonly used for pilotless aquatic submersibles. Your preference will have no impact of industry choices.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
      • Canada

        you mean... Unmanned ARIEL Vehicles, is also used for something that doesn't fly in the air as well? how confusing.

        May 24, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Pablo

      The public is paranoid. They seem to think our government is our worst enemy. I don't really think so.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  26. james

    Once the police have them they will only be used for fun and games and harasment. So I must say NO to the use of them!

    May 24, 2013 at 7:39 am | Reply
    • Homer10

      They have been spotted in my neighborhood. They are looking for pot fields. But the question is "Are these drones owned by the sheriff, or by somebody else?". Few drones have identification markings on them. There is no requirements for NC numbers. Maybe there should be? What if one crashes and causes a fire? (a forest fire).

      May 24, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  27. DickPerry

    I'm gonna go out tonight and get a women to put my drone into.. Cheers.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:06 am | Reply
  28. eric

    I'm sorry but I really don't want any drones flying overhead for any reason.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Reply
    • EddO

      We do it to Iraqi so you can take it, too.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Reply
    • stevie7

      "America the brave, still fears what we don't know"

      Sad that we would let irrational fears threaten the safety and well-being of our fellow citizens.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
      • Canada

        lol, good quote

        May 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Pablo

      Are you paranoid or do actually have something to hide.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  29. Marc

    I'd question how useful drones would be in finding people buried under debris etc. Even thermal won't show a person covered by debris, or bodies when they cool to the background temperature... It just seems like the uses would be limited for more then live people in the open and planning routes into damaged areas.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • BillyD

      They wouldn't help with people under debris. People that have cooled down isn't a heat only situation though. The companies who work on the analytical tools for these are mostly working on object recognition or showing changes in the environment over multiple flights. Also, if you have a complete mosaic of the damage, it would help with planning how to enter the area and where it was hit the hardest. These are just the basic things being worked on or already in production.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
  30. Homer10

    Wait till Google Earth starts using drones to take aerial pictures. Oops, they already are.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
    • us_1776

      Google Earth uses satellites.


      May 24, 2013 at 12:20 am | Reply
      • UAV_Guy

        and UAV's. Look at the image quality in some areas! We have SATCOM equipment that can get good detail, but why fly UAV's in warzones if the quality is as good as SATCOM? Because it's NOT.

        May 24, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  31. Robin R. Murphy

    Small UAVs have been used at 11 disasters internationally. The first use of small UAVs was in the US by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, which I direct, during Hurricane Katrina as part of the Florida State Emergency Response Team. We have been advising on the use and procedures for getting permissions for the tornado response, as flying even a small UAV requires coordination with the other activity- hence the no fly zone. The FAA has had an emergency COA process for years, though we find many agencies and industries are not aware of it. We are happy to assist agencies and industries in adopting and deploying unmanned systems of any kind.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Reply
    • Smoke and mirrors

      You go girl. Don't let the stupid people get in the way of doing the best job you can for the people you serve. I was called the blacktop warrior because I had t fight to install a dive maintenance system in the Marines that the Navy had been using for years. Keep up the good work!

      May 24, 2013 at 1:33 am | Reply
      • Canada

        dude, she's not going to go out with you, you don't have too brown nose.

        May 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • UAV_Guy

      Good to see people defending drones. I assisted with UAV support during Katrina and Haiti, as well as MANY other support missions (missing sailboats and such over the south pacific). UAV's aren't evil! People should be more worried about prowlers in trees with telephoto lenses an police helicopters than a UAV!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Reply
      • card51short

        so drones are OK because you used one before and youre a good person? what if they fall into the wrong hands? what about when iran starts sending drones here like we do to other countries? still gonna support it huh? you may want drones but most americans dont...of course i know that doesnt matter because america is run by the military and corporations and not the people anymore.

        May 24, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  32. Freedom Storm

    Maybe great trap and skeet practice?

    May 23, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Reply
    • Homer10

      As long as the drone doesn't take your picture just before you shoot.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • BillyD

      I guess you want to pay the bill for the damage. That's destruction of property, my paranoid friend. And before anyone says anything about it being on their property, the airspace X number of feet above your property isn't yours. I can't remember the number of feet exactly, but it stops being yours quick enough.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:55 am | Reply
      • card51short

        if Billyd's neighbor was using a periscope or some kind of device to spy into his home he would freak out, call the cops and verbally or maybe even physically attack the neighbor. however, when a man in a funny suit with a shiny badge is the one spying, not only will he not fight it, he will welcome the spying and thank the drone for making sure he isnt a terrorist.

        May 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  33. Don Bowler

    Q the nut case response

    May 23, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • SomeOne

      Using drones in Barbaric....It is inhumane and against international human rights conventions!! Stop it...

      May 23, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Reply
      • al kingsway

        Barbaric..!! .tell that to the low earth orbiting spy satellites that can count
        the daises in your back yard...

        May 24, 2013 at 10:17 am |
      • BillyD

        First, you are referring to a sliver of the UAVs in production. The same ones that CAN carry payloads don't always. Sometimes, they are used for surveillance and intelligence gathering only. By the way, I really hope your against all aerial attacks because there really isn't a difference other than our guys not having to risk their lives in the fight.

        May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
      • reer

        how is it against international law to kill someone with a glorified model rc plane?

        May 25, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Canada

      I heard Osama is still alive!

      May 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • card51short

        nope. he was killed. you cant see the body because we buried it to respect him. no pics either. but government says they did it. has to be true. only OTHER governments lie...not mine!

        May 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
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