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Hurricane highlights limitations of drones

Flying a Cessna over the North Carolina coastline helped illustrate why the Wake Forest Fire Department’s unmanned aircraft stayed on the ground following Hurricane Dorian’s brush with the East Coast.

This view of a passing helicopter as seen from a single-engine Cessna flown in support of North Carolina’s public safety response to Hurricane Dorian illustrates just how difficult seeing and avoiding manned aircraft can be, to say nothing of spotting a drone. Photo by Steve Rhode/Wake Forest Fire Department.

North Carolina has rightfully earned recognition from the FAA and others for a progressive approach to safely integrating drones in a public safety response to a wide-area disaster. While I have gained a lot of experience flying unmanned aircraft for the Wake Forest Fire Department, the mission launched once Dorian was done with my home state was in my Cessna 182: I was tasked with documenting coastal damage in photos and video taken from 1,000 feet agl.

I was at that altitude when I passed a helicopter flying about 500 feet below in the opposite direction. The photo illustrates a key challenge of integrating drones in a disaster response: The skies get crowded, and a manned helicopter is difficult to see and avoid. We were aware of each other thanks to radio communication relayed through air traffic control, and still it was a challenge to spot the helicopter against the background of beach houses. Can you imagine trying to see a drone, even if you knew where to look? No chance, really. It just wouldn’t happen.

This is why manned aircraft pilots remain leery of drones advancing farther into the airspace. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, when things tend to get messy and chaotic, adding drones that are not communicating with others in the airspace only makes matters worse.

Disaster response brings together a variety of agencies and organizations in the public safety sector, not to mention news organizations (like the one flying that helicopter) that also want to get a good look. More often than not, first responders wind up working with unfamiliar agencies for the first time, attempting to coordinate efforts in a systematic way. Adding unmanned aircraft to that mix creates challenges as well as opportunities.

Organizations like the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) that historically fly manned aircraft to assist in disaster response are expanding into the UAS world.

CAP Lt. Col. Chris Bailey, the squadron commander of a North Carolina CAP Wing, said his agency is embracing drones, but not as a replacement for manned missions: "I believe that that UAS program will be an excellent tool for Civil Air Patrol. While I cannot predict the future or speak for the organization, I do not believe that this will replace the missions we fly with our over 550 fixed-wing aircraft."

So with CAP pilots flying UAS in addition to manned aircraft, and other ground-based drone pilots also flying in ever larger numbers after a disaster, the potential for trouble only scales up.

"One of the biggest challenges faced is coordination with traditional, manned aviation and other disaster response agencies,” said James Pearce of the North Carolina Division of Aviation. “Manned and unmanned aviation still have a long way to go to build trust and operate in the same airspace."

The state's Division of Aviation UAS team, led by Basil Yap and Darshan Divakaran, has been learning lessons early in the integration of drones and other aircraft following disasters.

Some of the lessons have been obvious. The flight time of a small, battery-powered aircraft is limited to about 20 minutes or so, as we all know. But real-world experience nearly always brings surprises. We are learning as we go about what drones can and cannot accomplish. A drone provides limited perspective (they can only image a relatively small area); pilots get tired out by the fast tempo of operations; and it’s easy to develop tunnel vision, focusing your attention only on the area immediately around you and losing awareness of the situation on a strategic level.

"Understanding these limitations early on helps in ensuring safe and efficient operations. For manned and unmanned aviation to operate in the same airspace requires widespread, multi-level coordination between agencies,” Pearce said. “Knowing where UAS are operating helps manned pilots fly safely and respond to emergencies quickly."

One area we need to fine-tune is communication between manned and unmanned pilots.

"During a disaster, even just a drone sighting can result in a rescue helicopter or other aircraft having to land. Going forward, we need to continue building lines of communication that ensure we're all on the same page and working together," Pearce said.

In the case of my close passage of the news helicopter, the pilot and I were communicating with the assistance of ATC, and knew we both saw each other. With drone pilots on the ground, I would really like a standard process to know they are there.

My preference would be for for UAS pilots to announce their position and altitude on a handheld VHF radio on 123.025 MHz (a frequency designated for air-to-air helicopter communications) when they hear a helicopter or low-flying airplane in the area. Manned pilots would need to monitor this frequency during low-level flight when the risk of encountering a drone is higher.

Handheld radios have a short transmission range, so there is little chance of flooding the airwaves on this traditional air-to-air helicopter frequency.

And making the ad hoc aviation environment even more challenging is how internal and external standards blend. Bailey said that when it comes to the activities of the CAP drones, merely holding a Part 107 certification is not enough: "I feel the biggest challenge will be to ensure that each member has the proper training to follow the rules and regulations outlined by the organization. As a unit we all fall under the Civil Air Patrol and took an oath. Many members will come in with Part 107 licenses which may pose a challenge when having to align their training to date with the governing regulations of the organization which includes how we operate cohesively under our charter."

So you can see how disaster response flying in a stressful and sometimes chaotic environment with different flight cultures and governing rules magnifies the challenges.

In preparation for the current hurricane season, the state of North Carolina held a meeting of aviation stakeholders that included civil, public safety, and military operators. We talked about lessons learned from last year and how to implement those lessons moving forward. The meeting was of significant benefit to those of us flying following Hurricane Dorian, and I would love to see it become an annual event in every state that conducts large-scale disaster response flight operations.

There is no substitute for experience when flying after a disaster, and we have to leverage our collective experience to benefit all of us. Planning, sharing real-world events, and trying to come up with an agreed-upon integration plan can help us all avoid making a natural disaster that much worse with an aviation disaster piled on top.

Steve Rhode

Steve Rhode

Steve Rhode has been flying manned aircraft since 1988, and is an instrument rated private pilot as well as a certificated remote pilot. Steve serves as chief pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and as an unmanned aircraft instructor.
Topics: Drone, Technology

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