Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Emergency Management

by Darren E. Price

Responding to disasters is a critical function for first responders and the emergency management community. Rotary and fixed-winged aircraft have traditionally performed disaster response missions, such as overhead damage assessments, reconnaissance, and missing person searches. However, with the advancement of unmanned aircraft systems, there is an opportunity to perform conventional aerial missions in a safer, expeditious, and cost-effective manner.

Darren Price headshotEmergency managers are tasked with protecting the communities they serve – through planning, training, exercises, and technology. However, one technology has yet to be fully leveraged: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Advantages & Uses

Rachel Finn and David Wright of Trilateral Research & Consulting LLP in London, UK, published a 2014 study stating that, “UASs have a ‘niche’ in performing the three Ds: dull, dirty, and dangerous work.” Additionally, in 2003, Aviva Brecher at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center offered that UASs can be deployed on demand, have flexibility in tasking, have plug and play capabilities for their payloads, can support high-resolution cameras, and can cover remote areas. These are but a few examples of the advantages and potential uses for UASs.

One advantage offered by UASs in comparison to rotary and fixed-winged aircraft is their ability to obtain unique observation angles that are not practical or otherwise possible via conventional means. UASs can be, and have been, used for a variety of missions, including agricultural inspections, assessing critical infrastructure, determining building and structural integrity, and conducting preliminary damage assessments. Recent real-world examples exhibiting the use of UASs for emergency management-related missions include UAS use to aid in:

  • Recovery efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the October 2015 flooding in South Carolina;
  • Relief efforts in the aftermath of magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal in April 2015;
  • Missing person searches; and
  • Damage assessments at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from the March 2011 earthquake and resultant tsunami that struck northern Japan.

Additionally, collapsed buildings pose an especially hazardous situation for emergency responders due to the instability of the structures. The use of UASs provides an alternative to sending emergency responders into an unstable building environment to determine its stability, with the added benefit of being able to provide real-time audio/​video and environmental sampling. Not only does there appear to be an emerging interest in using small UASs for structural assessments, a 2014 article published in the Journal of Field Robotics noted that experiments have indicated that small UASs have been able to enter the hot zone of contaminated areas and begin transmitting usable data within 16 minutes. This is a significant finding as this timeframe is considerably faster than what traditional hazardous materials or radiological monitoring teams can accomplish.

In addition to traditional emergency management missions, the use of UASs represents a force multiplier for fire departments that deploy an air reconnaissance chief (ARC) during fire response operations. As an example, the current policy of the Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) is to deploy a battalion chief, operating as the ARC, for high-rise business and residential fires, as well as for building collapses. The activation of an ARC can also occur for multiple alarm fires, weapons of mass destruction incidents, special events, and incidents spanning large geographic areas that are otherwise inaccessible. The role of the ARC is to provide an overhead scene assessment (e.g., imminent hazards, structural integrity, location[s] of building occupants) to the incident commander (IC) on the ground. This assessment is critically important to the IC, as it will assist with guiding the priorities, objectives, strategies, and tactics comprising the incident action plan. The deployment of a UAS would decrease the time necessary to obtain an on-scene assessment or situational awareness, thereby expediting the sharing of incident information (e.g., live video feed, telemetry) with incident command posts and emergency operation centers.

Drone flying over U.S. City

Barriers to Implementation

There are numerous barriers that complicate the use of UASs for disaster response, including public perception (i.e., privacy concerns), current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations, and a general lack of organizational policy structure. Although none of these areas is insurmountable, they nonetheless represent challenges for agencies considering the use of UASs within the United States. Among various barriers that exist, two of the more challenging ones are privacy concerns and the current FAA restrictions on the use of UASs by government agencies.

Privacy concerns have been raised that the domestic use of UASs may infringe upon the right to privacy afforded under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Recognizing public concerns about the use of UASs to conduct domestic spy missions, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has proactively assigned the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Privacy Office to lead a working group ensuring the domestic use of UASs does not violate individual rights to privacy. The Obama Administration has taken this a step further through the issuance of a 2015 presidential memorandum that recognizes the need to promote innovation and “economic competitiveness” regarding the domestic use of UASs, while at the same time providing protections for privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

An additional barrier complicating the use of UASs for disaster response missions in the United States is the FAA restrictions on the use of UASs by government agencies. There are processes for emergency requests, but the typical turnaround time to obtain a non-emergency Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for government agency UAS use is approximately 60 days. Even with a one-time emergency waiver, the timeframe required to obtain a COA is mission prohibitive for real-time response to disasters and presents a significant barrier to agencies that may be interested in using UASs for immediate disaster response missions. Furthermore, the interpretation espoused by the FAA – that a UAS operated by a civilian hobbyist is not an aircraft, but one operated by a government agency is – represents a clear contradiction in logic that must be addressed if UASs are going to be used to their full potential.

Decision Guide for Emergency Managers

With an opportunity to be on the leading edge of the UAS revolution, it is an exciting time to be in emergency management. The field of emergency management should move forward with the establishment of UAS programs for disaster response by embracing UAS technology and the many benefits it offers for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery mission operations. Although the necessity to regulate the use of UASs in the national airspace system is recognized, such regulation cannot stymie the implementation of UAS programs for government agencies, especially for programs focused on public safety functions such as disaster response.

The author’s Naval Postgraduate School master’s thesis, entitled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Emergency Management: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners,” contains a guide in the appendix that serves as a tool to help policymakers and practitioners determine the need and feasibility of implementing UAS programs in their agencies. It also serves as a practical job aid that leads policy makers and practitioners through various decision points to consider when assessing the need and feasibility of a UAS program.

Elements of this article were previously published in the June 2016, International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin, the official monthly newsletter of the IAEM.

Darren E. Price, MA, is an emergency manager and regional supervisor with over 30 years of public service, including 15+ years in emergency management. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security Master’s Program, where his thesis, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Emergency Management: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners,” was an outstanding thesis award nominee.