Several Types of Drone Teams Rush to Provide Help in the Aftermath of Hurricane Ian

BY Zacc Dukowitz
5 October 2022

Hurricane Ian has torn through parts of Florida, leaving destruction in its path. And several drone teams have responded quickly to the disaster to offer support.

The amount of help provided by different types of drone teams is impressive, but so are the different ways that drones are being deployed in response to the disaster wrought by the hurricane.

We’re seeing drone teams:

  • At universities and emergency responder programs to help find victims in search and rescue work and for damage assessment.
  • At power companies to do infrastructure and utility inspections so they can get back up and running as fast as possible.
  • At telecommunications companies to locate damage that needs to be fixed by providing on-demand inspections of the hardest-hit areas.
  • At drone hardware and software companies to provide extra support and free access to resources to aid public safety efforts.

Below, we’re going to take a closer look at each of these efforts.

But first, if you’re a Part 107 drone pilot, here’s how you might be able to get involved:

How Can You Help?

If you are a Part 107 pilot who wants to help with the response to Hurricane Ian, there are a few things you can do.

Drone pilot organizations like DroneBase may be seeking pilots to help do post-hurricane insurance adjustment work (i.e., roof inspections by drone) or other types of drone infrastructure inspections. Often, after a big weather event, drone pilots organizations get inundated with requests for work and need to onboard new pilots quickly to meet the demand.

Also, Skyhound UAS and Drone Tech UAS are actively seeking certified commercial drone pilots in the Tampa area.

Here are the details:

drone-pilots-hurricane-ian

Now, let’s take a look at all the ways drones are being used to help in the wake of the hurricane.

Search and Rescue and Disaster Assessment

The state of Florida’s Department of Management Services (DMS) deployed drones to assist with search and rescue efforts, and collaborated with the state’s Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) to deploy drone teams to assess damage in flooded areas impacted by the hurricane.

Florida State University’s Center for Disaster Risk Policy (CDRP) has a dedicated drone team that’s been helping with reconnaissance and search and rescue efforts by providing accurate, “near-real-time data in lieu of maps that are typically weeks and months old” about conditions on the ground, as well as helping find hurricane victims in need of help.

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Members of FSU’s CDRP drone team | Credit: FSU’s CDRP

Seven members of FSU’s 16-person drone team have been supporting the state’s search and rescue efforts, a team that includes fire and rescue workers from Tallahassee and Miami-Dade County, plus two researchers from Texas A&M University

Utilities and Power Generation

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, Florida Power & Light (FPL) deployed its brand new, $1.2 million fixed-wing drone the FPLAir One for the first time to assess damage to its utilities infrastructure, helping quickly identify where repair work is needed.

FPL is Florida’s largest utility, and it used the FPLAir One and other drones in its fleet to assess damage to areas too dangerous for humans to enter, including places that were still underwater, places where buildings had collapsed, and places where uprooted trees and other debris presented significant obstacles for data collection.

As drones helped with damage assessments, FPL had almost 21,000 workers from 30 states working around the clock to restore power and clear debris.

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The FPLAir One | Credit: Florida Power & Light

Airborne Response also used drones to help with damage assessment for utilities, telecom infrastructure, and insurance agencies. The organization led over 500 drone flights on behalf of its customers to support response, relief, and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane.

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Drone photo taken by Airborne Response following Hurricane Ian | Credit: Airborne Response

In its response to the disaster, Airborne Response has emphasized a focus not only on ensuring the safety of the hurricane victims, but also on its employees doing urgent work to support those victims.

We need to ensure the safety and security of our personnel while also exceeding service expectations of our customers. This can be a difficult process in the wake of a major disaster, but we are starting to see early signs of stabilization in the area which will allow us to ramp up the pace and scope of our operations.

– Christopher Todd, Founder and President of Airborne Response

Telecommunications

AT&T quickly deployed a drone team to various areas impacted by Hurricane Ian to assess damage and enable fast repairs to its telecom infrastructure.

In the past, AT&T has used its large COW (Cell On Wings) drones—which are essentially flying cell towers—to temporarily restore cell coverage to places impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters. It may deploy COWs in Florida, but so far it seems like it will not need to because its initial response restored almost all coverage to the company’s clients.

Verizon also dispatched its drone team to inspect damage to its cell towers. After previous disasters, Verizon has used drones to assess damage to flooded sites, using aerial footage to determine whether a site’s generator can be safely refueled so that coverage can be quickly restored, reducing downtime for coverage from days to just hours.


A Verizon drone flying over Sanibel Island following Hurricane Ian | Credit: Verizon

The state of Florida’s Division of Telecommunications also moved fast to mobilize a response that included a team of drone pilots, working closely with law enforcement to use aerial data from drones to support work to restore telecommunications throughout impacted areas in the state.

Drone Companies Offer Help

In addition to all this help on the ground from drone operators, companies have jumped in to offer help from a distance.

DroneDeploy offered free access to its drone ops platform to those working to help after the hurricane. It also offered priority support from its crisis response and technical support teams.

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Credit: DroneDeploy

Skydio also offered help in several forms to those working in response to the hurricane, including:

  • Setting up a 24/7 emergency response hotline expressly meant to support impacted public safety and enterprise customers.
  • Free advance replacement of any lost or damaged drones being used in response to the hurricane.
  • Free access to Skydio Cloud to help capture and share images, including access to Skydio Cloud for Real-Time Awareness (includes Streaming), 3D Scan, and Skydio Autonomy Enterprise (SAE).
  • Free training for customers working in response to the hurricane.

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