This disaster recovery and relief effort in Texas has been the subject of much well deserved praise so far, with the city being largely “open for business” fairly quickly even as the process continues. One aspect of this effort which has been ramping up from the beginning has gone largely unmentioned in the media, however. A significant number of drones have been deployed to do everything from conducting aerial inspections of trouble spots to looking for survivors. The Wall Street Journal has a roundup of some of these efforts and the hoops that the operators had to jump through in order to get permission to take to the air.
For drone users, Hurricane Harvey is likely to be the event that propelled unmanned aircraft to become integral parts of government and corporate disaster-recovery efforts.
In the first six days after the storm hit, the Federal Aviation Administration issued more than 40 separate authorizations for emergency drone activities above flood-ravaged Houston and surrounding areas. They ranged from inspecting roadways to checking railroad tracks to assessing the condition of water plants, oil refineries and power lines.
That total climbed above 70 last Friday and topped 100 by Sunday, including some flights prohibited under routine circumstances, according to people familiar with the details. Industry officials said all of the operations—except for a handful flown by media outlets—were conducted in conjunction with, or on behalf of, local, state or federal agencies.
One person familiar with the details said certain applications were processed within hours, an unusually fast turnaround for federal safety regulators accustomed to days or weeks of analysis for such decisions.
Most of that sounds like good news, and to a certain extent it is. But underneath the success stories there’s a mountain of bureaucratic nonsense and red tape which had to be cleared. The FAA still has some relatively crippling restrictions on drone operations and that situation was compounded in Houston when they instituted a no-fly zone over the entire area after the flooding began. That’s understandable for a situation where so many helicopters were suddenly buzzing around on missions of mercy. You don’t want any amateurs joyriding through the area in their Cessnas and causing a collision. But it also meant that anyone who wanted to put a drone in the air had to go get an exemption from the FAA or face a significant fine.
Further, there’s still a restriction on operating drones beyond the range of vision of the operator. For more sophisticated models with onboard cameras and GPS, such as many of the ones used in surveying the damage from Harvey, that renders those features essentially useless. The operators also had to receive waivers to go beyond line of sight. The FAA was pretty good about handing them out, but it was still one more step in the process to jam things up.
There’s a new FAA re-authorization bill coming up shortly and this might be an ideal time to at least loosen up a few of these regulations. (You can read a good overview of where that process stands at Business Insider.) Some caution is obviously called for, but the current system is simply too burdensome as was shown these past two weeks in Houston.