Drones Hit the Skies after Harvey

September 7, 2017

The Wall Street Journal reports that drones and their operators are being granted unusually fast turnaround times on application requests from local and state agencies seeking authorization to use UAVs for recovery and inspection tasks in Texas after Harvey.

To date, more than 127 applications for Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) waivers for emergency drone activities had been processed by the FAA - a procedure that in the past might have taken weeks to reach approval.

At the InterDrone Conference in Las Vegas this week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speaking on the one year anniversary of the Part 107 unmanned aircraft rule said, "After the floodwaters had inundated homes, businesses, roadways and industries, a wide variety of agencies sought FAA authorization to fly drones in airspace covered by Temporary Flight Restrictions. We recognized that we needed to move fast – faster than we have ever moved before."

"So we basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request," Huerta said.

Local fire departments and county emergency management officials are operating drones to check for any damage to local roads, bridges, underpasses, water treatment plants, and other infrastructure that may need immediate repairs.

AT&T engineers are using drones to check cables, cell towers, and antennas that are otherwise unreachable due to flooding.  

Eight approvals were fast granted  to a railroad company to survey damage along a major rail line in Houston.

Unmanned aircraft are being used by insurance companies to estimate damage and anticipate claims. As reported by Reuters, Allstate Corp, the second-largest property insurer in Texas, expects its drone fleet to make at least thousands of flights a week in the damaged areas once its claims processing becomes fully operational. Farmers Insurance intends to outfit adjusters with suit-case sized Kespry drones to process residential damage claims.

This increased use of UAVs comes at a significant time.

“Harvey is an opportunity to see whose drones are capable and whose are merely toys,” said George Mathew, chairman and chief executive of Kespry, a drone company based in Menlo Park, California. “Harvey is a seminal moment for the industry.”

The UAV industry has been waiting for a final rule to be released by the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding the use of drones in commercial and private applications, but the White House halt to enacting any major new rules across the board put has left the final rule guidance in limbo.  

Industry leaders are hoping that examples of drone usefulness during the Harvey recovery will motivate legislators to address the issue.

Mark Dombroff, a former government lawyer who represented the FAA and now is a partner at the law firm Dentons US LLP in Washington, said this: "The storm’s aftermath amounts to virtually a poster child for the social, economic and human benefits of drones.”