More than a million people have been told to leave their homes, get away from the coast and low-lying areas, and get to safety as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas and Virginia. But a new group of temporary, risk-taking residents is getting ready to ride out the storm. Drone pilots are watching forecasts and staging in areas where they’ll be safe, but useful, ready to rush into action as soon as possible, as a now vital part of the disaster response.
“When we’re predeployed, we have our rations—it’s an ongoing joke of beef jerky and pretzels,” says Hadley Doyle-González, who runs SMG Drones, in Palm Beach, Florida. “We have a ridiculous amount of batteries,” she says. “We need to be able to fly for 24 hours with no power.” During Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida this time last year, Doyle-González was deployed to Naples and holed up in a hotel. She made sure all her equipment was in waterproof cases and moved her car to higher ground. When the winds died down, she headed out to capture high-resolution images of houses, buildings, and utilities, which can show damage early, and get help and repairs, as well as insurance money, to where it’s needed.
“You’re charging every battery you have to the nth degree,” says Craig Besse, flight ops manager for Airbus Aerial, who was also deployed in Irma’s aftermath. You need 20 to 30 gallons of water per person and to make sure your truck is loaded with food, water, and fuel. “Get that last shower in,” he says, before supplies are cut off. Then, it’s about being flexible. “It’s not going to go the way you expected.”
As Hurricane Florence continues its unstoppable march toward the Atlantic coast, both Besse and Doyle-González are managing teams of drone pilots and going through those same final preparations. They are just a few of the expected thousands of drones and pilots getting ready to fly over the damage left by the storm.
When Florence hits the coast, it will bring torrential downpours, wind blasts, coastal erosion, and the possibility of a storm surge of seawater causing flooding. The National Hurricane Center has predicted “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall.” Accuweather is warning that the angle at which the storm will impact the coast—nearly perpendicular—means the winds on the east side will be particularly effective at driving waves, and that surge, onto shore. It’s predicting $60 billion in economic impact and damage.
Air travel, of course, will be disrupted. The FAA says to expect flight cancellations and airport closures. Air traffic controllers will evacuate tall towers in extreme winds but will stay on duty from a lower, secure level. Airport workers will disable airport surveillance radar antennas so they spin freely, to save them from wind damage, and get up and running as quickly as possible once the threat has passed.
The assembled drone pilots, though, won’t wait for commercial aviation to restart before they take off. Insurance companies are the biggest clients for their services, so they can figure out where to send resources, and in some cases, to settle claims within hours. Utility companies employ drone pilots to spot downed power lines. Infrastructure engineers can see flooded roads. And they can do it all long before it’s possible or safe to reach these areas on the ground.
At the Airbus Aerial headquarters in Atlanta, Jesse Kallman, president of the imaging company, has taken over a conference room, with a team of 10. Together they’re putting well-prepared plans into action, to combine data from Airbus’ satellites, fixed-wing aircraft, and drones. Insurance companies are sending over databases of where their policyholders are concentrated. Utilities are spelling out where they have vulnerable infrastructure like long power lines. The company is also pulling together pre-event data: “before” pictures to contrast with the “after.”
Getting those “after” images is the challenge. No aircraft can fly in the storm itself, and even when it passes, they have to get into place to start work. “We work with the satellite team to try to understand the optimal times to acquire data, and work through all the types of data needed,” Kallman says. A detailed understanding of the path of the storm can give them a head start.
“Once the weather clears, we want to be prepared to get planes and drones up in the air,” says Jonathan Gadd, who manages drone and planes at EagleView, another imaging company, for which Doyle-González is subcontracting.
It’s not just quadcopters that can be useful. Small, manned planes can also cover more distance but at a greater cost. EagleView is working to stage 15 fixed-wing aircraft in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida. Planes are not only useful for supplementing drones for image capture, particularly on long runs, but they’re also crucial for transport. EagleView’s has couriers fly into affected areas, collect hard drives of video and image data, and fly them to its offices in Rochester, New York.
Drone operators train for this type of work and know enough to stay out of the way of first responders. The FAA is appealing to amateurs to do the same. Professional drone pilots can apply for emergency certificates of operation from the sky safety regulator if they need to work in areas that have been blanketed with temporary flight restrictions.
Combining this bird’s-eye view with some clever computing lets insurance agencies move faster than ever before, like Allstate did after Hurricane Irma. “We had a customer in Orlando, and we called him and said we believe your roof has damage,” Allstate spokesperson Justin Herndon says. “That was before he filed a claim.” The man had money in his bank account within five hours.
Well after the storm has gone, drones can help with the heavy lifting. In hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico last year, utilities used drones to restring downed power lines in hard-to-access areas.
But now, America’s drone pilots are lying in wait for Florence’s rage. “This one’s supposed to linger—it’s going to be a lot slower of a go time than what we’re used to,” Doyle-González says. Teams will have to spend more like 48 hours surviving on their jerky and pretzels, sitting and waiting, sleeping while they can. Then they’ll be ready to start work—even if it means a few days before their next shower.
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