Flying Rubber Neckers Disrupt Drone Work in Texas Recovery

  • Drone ‘disaster tourism’ mars response in wake of Harvey
  • Seminal moment for drone industry as they flock to help

How Drones Are Helping the Harvey Relief Efforts

As they flew a fleet of drones over flood-ravaged Texas to aid rescuers and inspect levees, Robin Murphy and her team of disaster-response veterans expected to be operating in nearly empty skies.

What they saw instead when they called up a drone-tracking application in Fort Bend County southwest of Houston were whirling flocks of camera-carrying vehicles flying in spite of a federal prohibition on all but a handful of specially approved operations.

“What exactly is it you’re doing other than disaster tourism?” said Murphy, who has assisted in disaster responses for more than a decade and is director of Texas A&M University’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

The mass destruction brought on by Hurricane Harvey has been a seminal moment for drone operators, proving that they can effectively map flooding, locate people in need of rescue and verify damage to speed insurance claims. But the event has also illustrated the downside of a technology that has expanded so widely it has attracted irresponsible users who have hampered emergency crews.

A commercial drone pilot flies a drone during a property inspection following Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Murphy and other drone operators who are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration said they watched in dismay over the past week as people posted photos and video on social media showing them bragging about flying drones while drinking beer or urging drone owners to disobey the law.

As they gear up for similar operations to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a powerful category 5 storm bearing down on Florida with landfall expected over the weekend, they are girding for the worst. 

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The FAA last year approved regulations for the first time allowing routine commercial small-drone flights, making the influx after Harvey possible. Still, flights are limited to low altitudes and operators must keep the devices within sight. The agency didn’t respond to an email request for comment on whether it had begun any enforcement actions related to recent flights in Texas.

"In any young industry, during pivotal moments in its development, there are going to be positives and there are going to be missteps and mistakes that you need to learn from," said Brian Scott, a drone company owner who was part of an impromptu team known as Humanitarian Drones that helped local officials in Houston, Port Arthur and Rockport.

In Rockport, which is on the Gulf of Mexico coast and suffered extensive damage, their team of six drones was able to photograph 1,650 homes, turning over the data to local government officials, Scott said. The data will be used in the community’s application for U.S. disaster assistance, he said.

"We’ve essentially done in two and a half days what it would have taken them two weeks to do on the ground," he said. "That’s the kind of efficiency we’ve lent to them."

Property inspection using a drone.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The Humanitarian Drones team were all licensed by the FAA for commercial drone operations and received permission from the agency to fly in some restricted zones, Scott said.

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That wasn’t true of many drone pilots they encountered, he said.

"You had an influx of everybody and their brother with a drone coming down and getting in the way," he said. "We’re going to get a black eye like that."

In Houston, where flood waters have mostly receded, leaving brown silt across vast areas, Houston Fire Department drone pilot Patrick Hagan encountered a different problem: there still isn’t a formal system of keeping drones and the emergency helicopters that swarmed the city apart.

Hagan was flying his quad copter over a flooded highway last week, gauging the retreat of floodwaters, when he heard the thumping of an approaching police helicopter. He said he had a "heart-stopping" moment as he raced to lower his radio-controlled aircraft without knowing where the chopper was headed.

With emergency aircraft flying a lower altitudes than usual, "it doesn’t leave a lot of room for error," Hagan said in an interview.

Hagan said the dozen missions he flew last week to document the extent of flooding in Houston provided valuable information that would have been difficult or far more costly to obtain. But he often flew no higher than tree-top level because the emergency helicopters criss-crossing the city had no way of seeing where he was.

An air-traffic system for small drones at low altitudes doesn’t exist and very few of the devices are equipped with the tracking beacons that can be seen by FAA controllers or other aircraft. As a result, managing drones in an emergency environment is still "a work in progress," Hagan said.

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He also encountered two people who were flying drones illegally even though the FAA had issued an order not to fly over the city. One was a teenage boy, he said.

"I told him the FAA had grounded them," he said. "And it’s extremely dangerous to be in the air at all."

There is little doubt that drones are proving useful after widespread disasters such as Harvey.

On a street in Missouri City, a suburb southwest of Houston hit by high winds during the storm, fence posts, tree limbs and other debris were piled in front of nearly every house. Blue tarps covering missing siding and sheared roofs dotted the homes.

Brent Hazen, an adjuster for Farmers Insurance Group, powered up a drone built by Kespry Inc. on Thursday afternoon. The quad copter lifted off and flew a pre-programmed route back and forth over a home insured by Farmers, capturing dozens of photos of the roof.

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The flight was completed in 11 minutes, a task that would have taken far longer if Hazen had had to climb up on a ladder. It was also safer, sparing him from having to get onto the steeply pitched second-story roof, he said.

“It’s definitely one of those things that will make it more efficient,” he said.

The DJI Phantom drone used for the property inspection.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Sean Duff, a part-time drone pilot for DataWing Global, was able to photograph the roof of a townhouse in Houston in even less time using an off-the-shelf model made by SZ DJI Technology Co. The roof on the three-story building, insured by USAA Capital Corp., would have been difficult to reach using a ladder.

"That’s it," Duff said after landing. "It’s real simple. We just upload the images."

Drones are not a panacea for tasks like insurance adjusting, and operations have been limited as operators waited for FAA flight restrictions to be lifted and for water levels to drop. 

If there’s flood damage inside a home, a human still has to make an assessment, said Kristina Tomasetti, strategic innovation director at USAA. The company has used unmanned vehicles in about 50 cases, so far, Tomasetti said.

"Our end game isn’t to use drones everywhere," Tomasetti said. Still, they are useful tools that the company is embracing, she said.

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