What Harvey Taught Us About Using Drones in Disasters

September 7,2017

Before weakening into a northeast soaking, Hurricane Harvey tore mercilessly through Texas and Louisiana. During its 117 hour reign of terror, Harvey raged with 130 mile per hour winds and unleashed 33 trillion gallons of water on the southeastern United States. The destruction is virtually unparalleled; this storm was one of the worst of the worst.

It’s a stark reminder that Mother Nature cannot be tamed — but technology can help pick up the pieces. In Harvey’s aftermath, drones are playing a critical role in relief and recovery efforts.

A No-Fly Zone?


The rain hadn’t even stopped falling when the drone community responded to Texas’s significant need. Fearing for the safety of emergency crews, the FAA imposed flight restrictions, requiring unauthorized ameteur pilots to stay away. An uncoordinated, disorganized drone response can do more harm than good.

But this does not mean that the agency is anti-UAV. Not by a long-shot.

Robin Murphy, director of Texas A&M University Center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue, explains that it’s a lot like police officers and guns. A private citizen can get a permit, weapon, and training — but that doesn’t mean they can go on the next SWAT mission. “You have to have been there before, trained with them, and be deputized. We’d all like to be deputies and help, but we don’t realize there’s a lot of work to being a police officer.”

A “SWAT” team did venture into Houston to aid the Red Cross; Vigilant Aerospace drones flying under an FAA COA (Certificate of Authorization) were deployed to provide aerial intel as Harvey continued to dump rain on the city. Vigilant CEO Kraettli Epperson says, “In an emergency like this, it is great to have eyes overhead to help map out safe routes and work with ground crews in search-and-rescue efforts.

Cleared for Flight

In the days immediately after Harvey, the FAA issued over 100 authorizations to commercial drone companies. In some cases, approval was granted in just a few hours — a far cry from the usual bureaucratic wait. This has enabled commercial UAVs to help out with critical Harvey-related tasks, including:

  • Rescue Operations. Harvey trapped dozens of people in their homes. The rescue crews charged with helping them faced a risky, and potentially deadly, job. With UAVs, they could identify victims and respond more quickly and safely. To compare: it would take a five-man team two hours to find a victim; a drone can do it in 20 minutes. As Epperson noted, drones can also map out the safest routes for first responders.
  • Cell Tower Restoration. Verizon deployed drones to inspect cell towers, helping the wireless giant assess damage and expedite recovery. Restoring the communications infrastructure is essential after a disaster; not only does it aid first first responders and organizations like the Red Cross, it helps people connect with worried loved ones.
  • Insurance Assessments. Typically after a natural disaster, insurance inspectors could assess three homes per day, often while navigating unsafe terrain. Drones help companies like Allstate and Farmers inspect up to three an hour. This means they can payout faster, and people can begin rebuilding that much sooner.
  • Oil and Gas Inspections. The FAA handed out authorizations to several oil and gas companies so they could inspect power lines, fuel tanks, and facilities. Safeguarding these resources, and preventing accidents, is essential following a disaster.
  • Railroad Safety. Union Pacific Railroad also snagged permission to send UAVs up to gather important data. This enables them to inspect hard-to-reach areas for structural damage and track washouts that could impede operation and public safety.
  • Municipal Use. Drones have helped local governments and agencies conduct crucial missions, such as assessing damage to water systems, roads, and bridges and identifying potential flooding and drainage issues.


The Future of Drone Technology During Natural Disasters

Harvey’s rain had barely stopped before Hurricane Irma — the “strongest Atlantic storm ever” — began churning. With increasing numbers of mega-storms predicted in the future, a strategic drone response can help save lives.


Ideally, the FAA can implement a crisis-response plan to utilize commercial drones effectively in natural disasters, streamlining authorization so it takes minutes, not hours, and coordinating pilots safely and expeditiously. If anything is certain, it’s that we’ll see more disasters of “historic” proportions. Responses must evolve.