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Boots on the Ground, Wings in the Sky

Boots on the Ground, Wings in the Sky

Heavily damaged homes in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. One block behind these homes is the industrial canal that collapsed during the storm surge of hurricane Katrina.

By Luke Carothers

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the United States.  Although landfall in Florida caused damage, the bulk of the $125 billion in damages were suffered by the City of New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the surrounding areas.  The flooding was intense, and, with much of the region under water for weeks after the storm moved on, transportation and communication infrastructure was rendered unusable.  This was one of several reasons for the delay in rescue efforts after the storm; there was simply no safe way to get rescue workers to certain locations so that effective aid could be provided in critical areas.

One particular case where responders were facing these circumstances was Pearlington, Mississippi.  Located at the mouth of the Pearl River, which straddles the border between Louisana and Mississippi, Pearlington felt the full force of Hurricane Katrina and the 30-foot wall of water that accompanied it.  Due to its small size and isolated location, Pearlington was one of the hardest places for volunteers to reach in the days after the storm.  The flooding destroyed nearly all of the houses in the community with only two spared out of nearly 1,700. Many of Pearlington’s homes were simply wiped off their foundations, and the ones that held in place were still severely damaged and covered in debris. 

Several of these homes provided a daunting challenge for rescue volunteers. They had been swept from their foundations and deposited side-by-side, blocking the only paved access to the small town.  To add to this, additional areas of the roads were covered in downed trees and debris while nearly every powerline was pulled down. With no means of egress nor communication, rescuers were unable to to determine the extent of the damage and whether or not there were more survivors trapped in the town.

Rescuers turned to an unfamiliar solution in the realm of search and rescue at the time: UAVs. Nearly all uses of UAVs and drones at that point in time were to be found in military applications. However, developments in the base technology for UAVs meant that, for the first time, they could be operated by teams as small as 3 people. Additionally, advancements in flight and rotor technology meant that drones could fly for longer durations and could carry more sophisticated cameras.

To achieve this mission, rescuers turned to scientists at the University of South Florida and the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) who decided to use two drones: one fixed-wing and one quad-rotor craft. Taking off from a small clearing in the road before obstruction, the team and their two vehicles completed their mission in less than two hours.  Not only did the team determine that there were no survivors trapped in the town but also that the nearby cresting Pearl River posed no immediate danger to the town. 

This was the first time that a federal government used UAVs as a critical part of disaster relief efforts, particularly search and rescue, but it certainly would not be the last. Armed with a new tool to fight back against Katrina’s immense destructive power, rescuers were determined to use drones to their fullest extent. Just a few days after the two vehicles were deployed in Pearlington, another group set about using the same technique to collect data on the US-90 bridge in Bay St. Louis which had been severely damaged in the storm. 

This mission to survey the damaged Bay St. Louis bridge and the other missions undertaken during the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts represent a transformational shift in the relationship between drones and users. With better flight technology, better cameras, and more connectivity, rescuers and researchers were not only able to collect vast amounts of data, but they were also able to share that data with the people who needed it most. In fact, this influx of relevant data spurred recovery efforts and allowed the bridge to be reopened just 21 months after the storm.

Following the success of UAVs and drones in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, these vehicles have played an important role in almost every major disaster recovery effort over the last two decades.  In addition, UAVs are also used to preemptively plan for coming natural disasters.  With Hurricane Florence approaching in 2018, teams at the North Carolina Department of Transportation flew more than 200 drone missions and collected 8,000 videos and images.  These images and videos were then compiled and used to create a plan of action, diverting people away from dangerous areas.

As UAVs and drones become more and more commonplace, their uses in the realm of disaster recovery seem to grow exponentially.  From creating 3D building maps after earthquakes, through spotting wildfires, to navigating molten lava fields, drone technology has been adapted to confront some of our most inhospitable disasters and help during some of our darkest hours.  As the threat of climate change becomes more real and larger, more intense weather events are on the horizon, drones and UAVs will be pivotal in how we overcome these new challenges.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.