23 August 2016
UAS for Rapid Response Initiatives Gain Momentum in North Alabama: Benefits to NWS Offices
NOAA UAS Program Refines Rapid Response and Evaluates Several UAS During Exercise
Over the past year and a half, the NOAA UAS Program Office has been investigating a means of providing local National Weather Service (NWS) offices with aerial imagery to aid in damage assessment surveys, following weather-related natural disasters, such as severe or tornadic thunderstorms. Through this study, a variety of collaborating partners from NWS, Emergency Management Agencies (EMA), and UAS operators and experts from industry around the country have banded together to identify common interests, generate a protocol and list of best practices, and develop a pathway toward transitioning this capability into routine operations.
This past week, another large step and completion of a major milestone for this objective was achieved in Huntsville, AL, through a two-part event, featuring a capabilities demonstration and real-time rapid response exercise. Here, subject matter experts from the NOAA UAS Program Office have been working closely on tackling this initiative with local stakeholders from the NWS office in Huntsville, Madison and Morgan County EMA, GEOHuntsville, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, OpenSensorHub, members of the first responder community, and a local commercial UAS operations and engineering group known as "enrGies". On Thursday August 04, this team of individuals from disparate organizations hosted a capability demonstration to bring together and share the latest findings from these efforts with other NWS personnel, EMA officials, first responders, industry partners, and elected leaders within the region. Following an in-depth briefing about the background and preliminary developments of the presented concept for operations, all participants were invited to step outside and observe, first hand, the UAS operations, methods, and resulting rapid-response imagery that many of them had just learned about. In less than an hour, the entire demonstration area located at John Hunt Park, had been thoroughly combed with a combination of multi-rotor and fixed-wing UAS, producing real-time high resolution visible and infrared (useful for night-time and search and rescue operations) imagery, as well as two-dimensional orthomosaic maps, which can be imported into any GIS application for use in the field or in an office setting.
Just a few days later, on Tuesday August 09, a subset of this group was invited to participate in a real-time exercise on the eastern edge of the city. For this, a tornado emergency event was simulated, complete with a faux warning issued by NWS Huntsville, fictitious reports of severe damage, and a resulting response by the Madison County EMA and community first responders. At the outset of this timed event, the Madison County EMA contacted the "enrGies" UAS operations team for activation and deployment to the scene. Having already been placed on alert/standby status by the EMA office, in anticipation of potentially severe weather, the enrGies team loaded up and arrived on scene in short order, where they quickly coordinated with the on-scene Incident Commander and commenced operations of their UAS assets. Two phases of the operation were quickly and efficiently covered; the first one involved the use of a multi-rotor UAS that was used to scan the entire area to obtain the scope of the damaged region via an aerial perspective. The same unit was subsequently used to demonstrate a search and rescue capability, using real-time streaming full motion electro-optical and infrared video imagery under the direction of local responders. While this was occurring, another crew of EMA officials were able to watch this real-time feed of imagery from the Emergency Operations Center across town, allowing them to see remotely what first responders were also seeing at the same time out in the field. As this first "initial response" phase of the operation continued, the second phase commenced, involving a more formal aerial "damage and recovery survey" operation. For this, a fixed-wing UAS carrying a high-resolution camera was flown back and forth semi-autonomously across the entire vicinity along a pre-planned path. Within a short time period, both phases of the operation were wrapped up, and the survey imagery was processed in the field and delivered to the relevant local EMA and NWS offices, which will have allowed them to more efficiently direct their follow-up damage assessment and recovery operations in the coming hours and days. The team evaluated the eBee, 3DR and Lockheed platforms.
Both events were a tremendous success, and the local team that hosted them have learned a great deal, which they are now in the process of documenting and sharing with their other collaborators around the country. Among the top lessons learned is that "time is everything", and advanced discussion, familiarization with the capability, and development of a proper protocol are the keys to gaining the most out of this burgeoning unmanned systems capability. It is amazing how much can be accomplished when different groups are able to identify common interests and work together toward achieving joint objectives… The sky is the limit.