3D Robotics

Interesting news from our friends at Falcon UAV in Colorado:

In the wake of the recent floods in Colorado, Falcon UAV has spent the last three days providing volunteer aerial services to the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Incident Management Team (IMT).  On Thursday afternoon while all National Guard aircraft were grounded due to weather Falcon UAV was proud to have been the only aircraft that was able to take flight to support the flood efforts in Lyons.

Friday saw a reprieve in the weather and we are able to get a perfect flight off in the town of Longmont to capture aerial imagery for damage assesment at the intersection of the overflowing St Vrain river and equally inundated Left Hand Creek.   In less than an hour the imagery was processed and provided to the Boulder EOC.  Just as Falcon UAV was off to another damage assessment in Lyons, Colorado we were requested to standdown for National Guard helicopters now supporting evacuation efforts.

Composite Image of Intersection of Flooded St Vrain and Left Hand Creek

Link to Flooded St Vrain and Left Hand Creek Interesection (Google Earth KMZ File) 

Animated GIF from that Google Earth overlay shown below (click to see animation):


Enter FEMA.......

Early Saturday morning Falcon UAV was heading up to Lyons to complete a damage assessment mapping flight when we received a call from our Boulder EOC point of contact who notified us that FEMA had taken over operations and our request to fly drones was not only denied but more specifically we were told by FEMA that anyone flying drones would be arrested.  Not being one to bow to federal bureaucrats we still went up to Lyons to do a site survey for how we can conduct a mission in the near future to provide an adequate damage assessment to this storm raveged community.  

Where bridge to the south side of Lyons used to be

Road into Lyons, CO

While we were up there we noticed that Civil Air Patrol and private aircraft were authorized to fly over the small town tucked into the base of Rockies.  Unfortunately due to the high terrain around Lyons and large turn radius of manned aircraft they were flying well out of a useful visual range and didn't employ cameras or live video feed to support the recovery effort.  Meanwhile we were grounded on the Lyons high school football field with two Falcons that could have mapped the entire town in less than 30 minutes with another few hours to process the data providing a near real time map of the entire town.

Falcon UAV would like to thank the Boulder County EOC and specifically Allen Bishop and Michael Chard (while they were running operations) for their common sense approach to drone operations, working to coordinate the airspace, as well as embracing this technology to help support the recovery effort.  In contrast we are very disappointed in FEMAs response to actively prevent the use of UAVs and drone technology when these services were offered for free and at a time when manned helicopters could be used for more critical missions such as evacuations and high mountain search and rescues in inaccessible communities.   

To our fellow Colordoans, we understand the recovery efforts are still ongoing and will be followed by a long period of damage assessment.  If we can provide volunteer aerial video, photography, or mapping services to any of the affected communities please contact us directly at 303-903-4571.

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  • To add a little more thought. I volunteer on a local level, with my Community Emergency Response Team. I have worked on a local level in a county EMA. I have worked fire/EMS. I have worked clinical medical settings. I am part of a Federal level medical response unit. I have trainings ranging up and down the line, from terrorist bomb response to search and rescue, to disaster finance.

    When I volunteer locally, I may be used as eyes to visually inspect damage, or as a paper pusher, or a shovel man on sandbagging operations, or told to direct traffic. On a Federal level, I am often a glorified cat herder. Making sure people get where they need to go. I could very easily look at a job I am given and say, I am trained in this and this and that, my skills are being wasted. But, I am aware of my place. I understand I may not see the big picture, and that I am helping in the way currently needed. It's slightly easier to stomach when getting a paycheck, but very humbling when I volunteer locally.

    If you really want to help, and your services as a UAS pilot aren't being requested, consider finding a Red Cross shelter. They will usually accept volunteers during a disaster, put you through a brief training, and put you to work. And, I cannot stress enough, join a group like CERT. Understanding disaster relief operations from the inside will help us go a long way in getting UAS in disaster relief.
  • As someone who works in emergency response, I am going to add my two cents, as seen from my side of the fence. When FEMA steps in, they have incident control. If this is not understood by you, this is part of the reason you are asked to leave. One of the tenets of working in a Federal disaster scene is understanding of the incident command system. Why? Next to war, emergency response is one of the largest undertakings of the Federal government. There are a LOT of moving parts to be managed, including, among other things, National Guard units, search and rescue units from varying areas, medical units (my personal area of Federal level response), Red Cross, insurance companies, Salvation Army, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, local charities...the list is nearly endless, from the big to the small. Anyone responding needs a basic level of training, a Federal ID, and blessing to be there. If not, then at best they are a do-gooder without a place. At worst, they could be someone attempting to take advantage of the situation. From the standpoint of FEMA, if you are not pre-approved and requested, you are denied. Now, maybe FEMA will fast track you. They could bring people up to speed in hours, if not less. But, doing that takes effort away from the response. So, the best option would be to say, we are here if you need us, and then stand down. I commend Falcon for having worked with the state, and commend the state for using them as a resource. I do not demonize the Feds for asking Falcon to cease and desist. Federal responses are a whole other ballgame.

    To use my war analogy, if a group of a few dozen people decided they could help the war effort in Afghanistan, do you think Uncle Sam would say, great, grab your guns, where would you like to fight? Or, do you think those people would be told to go see a recruiter, get trained, and then go help the war effort? And, how do you think it would go if those people unilaterally flew to Pakistan, crossed the border in Afghanistan, and started shooting?

    Falcon UAV was doing disaster survey. This is collecting data to help long term response and recovery. Life safety operations come before anything else. If their aircraft flying potentially hampered those life safety operations, then they should have politely stepped aside, and said, when things calm down, we could maybe help. Unless their UAS were able to lift people from floodwaters, they would likely be viewed as unnecessary flight operations.

    I want the use of UAS in disaster response as much, if not more than many. I have a personal affiliation with response efforts, all the way from local to Federal levels. I see the potential benefits. The best option for now will be to work on a small local level, and move up. Falcon UAV was on the right track until FEMA stepped in. At that point, they could have suggested their usefulness, been told no, and politely stepped back. Persisting after being asked to stop, or leave, only has the potential to hurt our case later on down the line.

    I will likely collect my thoughts a little better, and do a full blog post on this later.
  • Keep in mind that not all UAVs are small. The helicopters that I fly are 150lbs and 1,200lbs, respectively. 

    To be clear, no I'm not telling you that a small UAV is likely to bring down a helicopter. What I'm saying is that there's many people involved that need to be convinced that UAVs and manned aircraft can safely operate in the same airspace. Maybe it's better to get involved during practice scenarios rather than during a real emergency?

    If you are interested in making these changes happen, it's useful to think about the issue from the other perspective. You and I know that it can be done safely, but how do we convince other people?

  • I think this is all BS. Your trying to tell me that a small UAV hovering around 100meters is actually going to bring down a helicopter! Christ that is a load of bull. I certainly would never get in an aircraft that can be brought down so easily. I flew on Huey's in Vietnam and I can assure you that isn't going to happen. Besides any helicopter that flies that low would surely be noticed by the UAV pilot. These two platforms can easily fly in the same airspace especially if given strict guidelines of maximum altitude and physical locality of commercial aircraft is made clear to UAV pilots. It is incredibly stupid to make such specious arguments!! I am all for safety but one can go to idiotic extremes especially if they are government employees.

    This country needs to go back a few steps and start applying common sense when dealing with such issues. May I remind those that claim that FEMA has absolute authority needs to go research FEMA's mandate and current authority. They do not dictate airspace policy. That is strictly guided by the FHA. May I remind my fellow Americans that the Federal government is not all powerful. The last time I looked we live in country that has clear demarcation from state and federal authority. Just because some bumbling federal employee starts spouting dictates does not mean you have to abide by them. Christ use your common sense for once! Since when in the past twenty years has FEMA managed to help in any situation that state and local authorities could not have done for themselves? They are the absolute last agency I would want helping me with anything...

  • Absolutely! it's possible to mix UAVs and manned aircraft safely. It'll just take time to convince others and update the regulations.

    Keep in mind that the pilots themselves have an enormous influence on airspace decisions. I was on scene at a forest fire, with a COA, vehicle ready to launch. The pilots said, "If that thing flies, then we won't." So it was an easy decision for the guy in charge who grounded us. If we flew, he lost all his pilots.

    If the people in charge (in this case, FEMA) have had a similar experience with UAVs and pilots before, then they're not even going to consider using a UAV because they know their pilots don't like it.

    As a UAV operator it's easy for us to think, "If something goes wrong, I'll ditch the UAV". But think about it from the pilot's perspective. They are thinking, "If something goes wrong, I die." They've got their hands full flying, dealing with weather, and dealing with the emergency. Watching out for UAVs in the airspace just adds to their workload.

    It's easy to rant and say "FEMA sucks!", but it's really a lot more complicated than that.

  • Yes, this is a special case.

    Still, this would have possible to operate safely in shared airspace provided the FalconUAV was always strictly within LOS.  The pilot could bring it back if a helicopter actually came into the area, and even kill it if he wasn't sure he could avoid it.

    This is how this functions in Canada.  It's a very simple solution to a complex problem.  If the UAV pilot has REAL LOS, the sense and avoid problem is solved.  

  • The national guard helicopters were picking people up from the ground. They needed airspace all the way to the ground.

  • That make me feel better if that's actually the case.  I know the FAA is dragging it's feat on allowing drones to operate at the same time but why not set a low operating ceiling for the drones so there's not risk to other manned aircraft.

  • I kind of agree with Phillip here.  While it's regrettable the way this went down, FEMA did pretty much the only thing they could do.  I'm sure FEMA did not have any procedure in place control UAV operations in the same airspace as manned SAR operations.  If they had knowing allowed Falcon UAV to fly when they knew manned aircraft were in the air, and there was an incident, they'd be in HUGE trouble.

    This is, again, the FAA's fault for being so slow.  And, by extension, the federal government's fault for allowing that to continue.

  • First, kudos to Falcon UAV for putting useful applications of UAVs in the spotlight. I'm really happy to see people talking about positive applications for drones instead just associating them with war machines. 

    But frankly I'm disappointed that they're throwing FEMA under the bus. Falcon UAV was only cleared for flight while ALL other aircraft were grounded due to weather. As soon as the national guard helicopters were cleared for flight, Falcon UAV was grounded. This was the day before FEMA even took over operations control. 

    When FEMA did take over, there were manned helicopter and fixed wing flights going on so Falcon was not allowed to fly. There are not yet safety procedures to have UAVs and manned aircraft in the same airspace. Grounding them was absolutely the right call in this case.

    Falcon UAV is using this opportunity for PR, and I don't blame them! If we had safety regs in place, they absolutely could have been useful in this effort. Trashing the government agencies that might make use of the technology is not the best way to affect change, though.

    (I work at the Fort Collins - Loveland airport which was used as a base for many of the emergency aircraft)

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