Thursday, September 19, 2013

Special Edition: Drones, Colorado Flooding, and FEMA

Last week this blog offered a post which explored the idea that the Emergency Services Sector (ESS) and the world of social media were on a collision course. Now offered for your consideration is a report coming out of the flooding event currently playing itself out in Colorado.  However, this time the technology that has leapfrogged the ESS's plan for business is the one found in the sky. IEEE Spectrum, a publication devoted to robotic technologies, reports on "FEMA" telling civilian operators to stop using drones to collect disaster imagery, or face arrest:

(IEEE Spectrum, September 16, 2013)

Comment: This story is "wrong" on so many different levels:

With regard to the drone community - just because you have the technology to do something, doesn't mean you have the authority to do it. Under federal law, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has the authority to be there - in fact it is a big chunk of the reason they exist - to be the ESS's first eyes in the sky over a disaster site. And a big piece of the reason they have been designated to be there is they have been trained for the mission. The CAP effort responds to a formal "tasking" process which assigns areas of responsibility, targets, and then provides a plan for the ingest and use of the information collected. What exactly was the plan for bringing drone collected imagery into that same formal process? You have collected a bunch of great information - now what? Furthermore, NEWS FLASH to drone fans: it's not just all about you. In the pecking order of importance, there just might be a greater need for the airspace where your drone is flying. Like a rescue helicopter. And if birds, as in "bird strike" are a significant enough threat (Miracle on the Hudson) to manned platforms that the FAA posts bird threat information for U.S. airports, I think a drone, the size of which is being offered in the article, easily exceeds the "bird" standard. Great imagery - too bad it cost a rescue helicopter and 5 lives to get it. 

With regard to the Emergency Services Sector - shame on you guys. You know the deal, and don't anybody try to fudge it. Air response over the Katrina op area was a disaster because there wasn't a plan for deconflicting or controlling assets. Rescue helicopters were searching the same sectors multiple times while totally ignoring other areas, there was no real plan for domestic imagery collection and ingest, there was no aerial request process that anyone outside the FEMA chain of command had a snowball's chance of understanding, and so on. Now eight years later, along come civilian drones - with data collection capabilities honed in the "response" environment of combat and no one has a clue as to how to use that potential data stream. Right now, I can walk into virtually any Federal, State or Local EOC (I will assume Florida gets a bye) and know exactly what to expect when it comes to the formal plan for drone use - there isn't going to be so much as a single piece of paper. So, without a plan, a data stream gets turned off. Heads down isn't going to allow you to escape the reality that civilians are now outflanking the ESS with their access to technologies which exceed the ESS's structural and organizational ability to handle the data. You are way behind, and getting more so by the minute.   

With regard to IEEE Spectrum - congratulations! Not often someone can get me to unload - but the biased nature of your article got me there. Usually, when big, bad government does something "evil" like telling drone operators to stop flying, there's some logic behind it. You can tell by my comments above that you have grounds to complain, but not for the reasons you think. FEMA has lots and lots of good people working for it - and many of them leave behind their families for months at a time to work exceptionally long hours in places and conditions you don't even want to think about.... Please remember that next time you wander down the road of piling on "government".

Photo: Still from Falcon UAV video

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