Drones ..the good and the bad

October 15, 2015 |

Slate has two stories which highlight the challenges and benefits of drone technology.  In  How Vermont Used Drones After a Train Derailment the benefits of using drones in investigations of accidents is apparent.  Drones can access places not safe for humans and take photographs or video from angles not otherwise easily reached. There remains privacy issues which are not being properly addressed.  In What’s a Fair Prison Sentence When a Drone Gets in the Way of Firefighters? the issue is how to deal with irresponsible use of drones with a regulatory response.

The Vermont article provides:

When an Amtrak train went off its tracks in the forests outside of Northfield, Vermont, Oct. 5, state authorities needed pictures of the site to determine how best to respond and to document the damage for later investigations. So they decided to call in the drones, operated by the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Vermont. Within two hours, the university’s drone disaster response teams were flying their fixed-wing eBee unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, over the crash site.

Within an hour of arriving on the scene, the team’s drone shot 280 images of the derailment, with each high-resolution image linked to a precise location on the ground. By the end of the day, the drone team had processed the images into a seamless orthophotomosiac, a photographic “map” of the crash site that would come in handy for investigators.

As the Vermonter crash response shows, drones have in recent years become an easy and inexpensive way to collect invaluable images of accident and disaster sites: faster than a satellite and cheaper than a manned helicopter or airplane. Disaster response drones have been used in Nepal, Haiti, and Vanuatu and are increasingly finding their way into the toolkits of disaster response teams in the U.S.—including in Vermont, a surprisingly ideal testing ground for disaster drones.

Jarlath O’Neill-Dunne is the director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Vermont and served as mission commander during the response to the derailed train. A trained forester with military experience, O’Neill-Dunne first became interested in using drones for responding to and documenting disasters after Hurricane Irene swept through Vermont in 2011, destroying homes, roads, and bridges.

“It caused havoc for us,” says O’Neill-Dunne of the hurricane year. “We got a foot of rain in about an hour. … We had the ability to use satellites, but we found it wasn’t really that effective.” Clouds regularly covered relevant areas, and getting the right imagery on time to the right people proved to be a huge hassle. O’Neill-Dunne applied for a Department of Transportation grant, intending to study how drone imagery could help document destruction and get transportation going again after a natural disaster. Since, the lab has acquired two eBee drones from the French Sensefly company: black and yellow foam flying wings that weigh about 1.5 pounds and are equipped with sophisticated automatic flight-planning technology. As they’ve gained experience with flying their drones and using the data, the lab has developed a swift but formal protocol for deploying to the scene—with checklists and an established mission structure intended to keep the response organized and safe.

Unlike many other drone pioneers in the U.S., O’Neill-Dunne’s SAL lab has an easy relationship with state and federal regulators: The drone pilots work closely with state airspace authorities, and Vermont’s limited land area and small population have proved a good testing ground for drone disaster response tactics. The University of Vermont also holds a Section 333 exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to legally use the UAVs under controlled conditions out of the state.

Even before the derailment, the drones proved their utility for small-town disasters, after destructive rainstorms hit central Vermont on July 19. In the riverside town of Plainfield, the team used the eBee to carry out a rapid assessment of the damage to homes and roads and studied the aerial imagery to figure out how much wood and other debris was clogging local streams, potentially making bridges impassable.

In Barre, the team used the aerial imagery to document flooding destruction and to trace the spread of sediment in homes and on roads in exact detail—specific data that would make it easier for homeowners to get disaster relief assistance from FEMA. “Drone imagery didn’t help with the response—everyone knew whose house had flooded. But if you apply for disaster assistance, now you have survey-grade data,” says O’Neill-Dunne.

Will drones soon become a pedestrian part of disaster response, as expected as fire trucks and ambulances? While it’s quite possible, plenty of challenges still stand in the way of drone-disaster response spreading to the rest of the country. For one thing, there’s public concern over privacy and how camera-equipped drones might violate it. O’Neill-Dunne is sensitive to these worries but points out that the nadir (straight above) drone imagery he shoots isn’t much good for spying, considering that it’s hard to positively identify someone by looking at the top of their head. “It’s not a surveillance tool, it’s a mapping tool. We’re trying to use it in that realm, with the hope of alleviating the concerns of a lot of people,” he says.

Regulatory issues remain the biggest hurdle for disaster drones: The technology remains in a tricky legal gray area in the U.S., with final federal regulations set to come out sometime next year. That’s worrisome for drone disaster responders like O’Neill-Dunne. “If we had legislation banning drones flying over private property, especially in midmorning when people aren’t home and can’t give permission, we couldn’t do it,” he says. “We do need to consider privacy concerns, but is there a difference between someone shooting an image of your house from their car or a drone or a satellite?”

Ultimately, O’Neill-Dunne believes that the sheer usefulness of drone technology will overcome public trepidation, especially when it comes to small towns that lack the resources needed to send out helicopters or purchase pricy satellite information when disaster strikes. Instead of relying on bigger state or federal agencies, small American towns—already proud of their self-reliance—may soon be able to use drones to deal with both natural and man-made disasters

The drone getting in the way of firefighters article provides:

“Only you can prevent idiot drone hobbyists from getting in the way of people who are trying to fight wildfires.” If Smokey the Bear were to somehow time-travel to the year 2015, this would undoubtedly become his catchphrase. (Coincidentally, “Smokey the Bear time-travels to 2015” is also the premise of the sitcom I’m writing. Get at me, Hollywood!) As camera-equipped drones become increasingly popular with people who aren’t spies or creepers, more and more individuals are using those drones to capture dramatic aerial images of things that are happening on the ground. And what could be more dramatic than an overhead shot of a raging fire?

Well, lots of things, probably, but that’s not my main point. As spectacular as those fiery images can be, the act of getting them is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. By cluttering up the airspace above these blazes, drones risk colliding with rescue and response aircraft; the threat of a collision can actually force these aircraft to the ground. A top U.S Forest Service official told AccuWeather.com’s Jillian MacMath that the agency has recorded 25 instances so far this year of drones unwittingly disrupting emergency responders’ efforts to contain and extinguish wilfdires. In one widely reported California case, a drone got in the flight path of three planes that were planning to spray fire retardant on a blaze in the San Bernardino Mountains. The planes were forced to divert; the drone itself was left unharmed. “It’s infuriating,” a Forest Service spokesman said at the time. Who could disagree?

California state legislators, rightfully aggrieved by this photographic heedlessness, passed a bill this summer that would have prescribed six months in jail and/or a fine for anyone caught flying a drone in a manner that interfered with emergency-response efforts. But Gov. Jerry “Flame On” Brown vetoed the bill earlier this month, claiming that he was uncomfortable with the idea of expanding the state’s already-dense criminal code. At the time, I wrote that the California bill had been forced by the federal government’s tardiness to pass its own drone-control rules and regulations. Now, I would like to report that a federal lawmaker has finally taken future-Smokey’s exhortation to heart and proposed a measure to stop emergency-response disruptions before they start.

Last week, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen introduced a bill called the Wildfire and Emergency Airspace Protection Act, which would prohibit recreational drone users from flying their drones in a manner that disrupts the work of firefighters responding to fires that affect federal property; this enjoinment would also apply to drone hobbyists who interfere with other, non fire-related disaster-response operations. Shaheen’s bill, which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, is meant to protect federal interests, which means that it would have no impact on, say, a fire in your backyard, unless your backyard is Mount Rainier or something like that. The bill would impose a monetary fine and/or up to five years in prison for drone hobbyists whose “reckless” actions end up interfering with certain emergency responders. (This summer, California Rep. Paul Cook introduced a similar bill into the House of Representatives. Cook’s bill, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, differs from Shaheen’s in that it applies exclusively to wildfires and covers commercial drone operators as well as recreational operators.)

The Senate ought to be considering tough regulation of drones and their users, and Shaheen should be commended for bringing this particular issue to the body’s attention. But wile I agree that drone disaster-disruptors should be punished and that this sort of behavior needs to be deterred, a potential five-year sentence seems excessive. The vetoed California bill only allowed for a maximum six-month sentence, after all. In a press release, Shaheen noted that her bill “would provide a greater deterrent to using drones near disaster relief efforts and send a clear message that operating them in these circumstances is unacceptable.” I agree with this message wholeheartedly, and I hope that Shaheen’s bill and the attendant publicity causes this message to spread. But I also think that Jerry Brown’s warning about the perils of overcriminalization is worth remembering. “Only you can prevent prosecutorial overreach?” Smokey the Bear might not have said it, but legislators ought to bear the adage in mind all the same.



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