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Drones key to Hurricane Ian response

November 16, 2022  - By
A photo taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian shows the massive destruction on Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: felixmizioznikov/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

A photo taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian shows the massive destruction on Fort Myers beach. (Photo: felixmizioznikov/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Not to harp on an event that’s already passed out of the headlines and national coverage, but Hurricane Ian — a Category 4 storm that hit Florida in September — was full of destructive winds and caused major damage that could be with us for years before things get fixed. One source also indicated that so far we have lost 157 people, mostly from drowning — nothing will ever fix those losses.

So harp on I will, especially about the role drones and drone pilots played in rescuing survivors, and determining and mitigating effects of the storm.

The place that took the hurricane hardest was Fort Myers on the southwest Florida coast. The following video is from a security camera.

While Hurricane Ian was making a mess of Cuba and crawling over the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico, drones were already flying over areas where the storm could cross from the Gulf onto land — initially forecast around Tampa. But the forecast landfall continued to drift south, over where I live in Venice and 150 miles south of Tampa to Fort Myers.

Before landfall, drone operators in Fort Myers were gathering video/geolocation information on buildings and streets in the path that the forecast 14-foot storm surge might take. They identified areas of potential damage and places people might need rescue.

Map plotting the storm's track and intensity using data from the National Hurricane Center and a NASA image. (Image: public domain/FleurDeOdile/Wikipedia)/

Map plotting the storm’s track and intensity using data from the National Hurricane Center and a NASA image. (Image: public domain/FleurDeOdile/Wikipedia)/

After the storm hit, first responders began searching more than 400 destroyed houses in Fort Myers, some using the pre-storm drone video to rescue any trapped survivors.

The need was not only for access in difficult conditions, but also for communications. AT&T reportedly got cell coverage up quickly in a couple of areas, and Verizon flew tethered drones (capable of flying for up to 1,000 hours) to restore phone coverage over a circular radius area of five to seven miles. Verizon also hooked up generators and engaged satellite internet coverage for local use, and took a portable cell-site on a barge out to Sanabel Island, which had been cut off from the mainland. T-Mobile put generators at cell-sites that lost power and deployed satellite and ground-based portable cell coverage.

Photo: Verizon

Verizon tethered drones provided cellular service for first responders. (Photo: Verizon)

Powerful Drone

Loss of power was another issue. Florida Power and Light (FPL) flew its recently acquired fixed-wing FPLAir One drone to assess damage to its power distribution infrastructure, which supplies about 12 million people on Florida’s west coast.

FPL drone used in power loss assessment (Photo: FPL)

FPL drone used in power loss assessment. (Photo: FPL)

Using the drone in damage assessment efforts enabled FPL to get suitable crews to the right places early in the recovery effort.

FPLAir One is a group 4/5 large UAV. It appears to be a Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation (NASC)/Sonex Aerospace TEROS unmanned aircraft, which is based on an earlier Sonex-powered glider design introduced in 2003. Because of this heritage and its rugged airframe, the TEROS is ideally suited for flights in high wind conditions — great for FPL’s long-range pre- and post-storm assessment application using FLIR and video cameras.

The drone’s extensive prior airframe proving is assisting NASC/Sonex in its quest for certification of TEROS by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). FAA certification will ultimately support its integration into the National Airspace System (NAS) and allow operators to move on from the individual FAA approvals required for each operational drone scenario.

Drones to the Rescue

The principal application for hundreds of drone flights by several organizations was search and rescue for missing residents, mostly in the flooded area in and around Fort Myers. Drones also helped rescue people in North Port, where floodwater was as high as four feet, collapsing roofs and trapping people in their homes.

Skydio provided drones for several search-and-rescue programs by police and other agencies, as well as coaching personnel who might lack experience in flying them. More than 500 drone flights were accomplished in the first days after the storm, a large number using autonomous flight capability, greatly assisting rescue efforts to locate trapped people. First responders were also able to determine whether access was possible, or what steps were initially needed to even enable access.

Insurance companies are also using drone assessment video, determining the level of damage to homes and vehicles, in an effort to put assistance where it was most needed early on. Using artificial intelligence to align food-stamp users with badly damaged homes identified on satellite images in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, GiveDirectly offered immediate $700-assistance to many survivors. If all these offers were accepted, the cost could be as much as $2.4 million in no-strings-attached immediate aid for those worst hit.

In the aftermath of the largest, most damaging hurricane to hit the United States since 1935, volunteers, first responders, drone pilots, aid agencies, and power, communication and insurance companies all made use of drones. These agencies and companies are still helping many thousands of people to survive and start the long task of picking up the pieces of their lives.