Jerry Hendrix’s team flew a drone for 45 minutes Thursday afternoon, inspecting three miles of shoreline. (Courtesy Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi)

A team from the FAA test site for drones in Texas spent part of Thursday afternoon flying a drone along the Blanco River to aid search and recovery efforts following severe storms that killed at least 17 in Texas and Oklahoma.

Jerry Hendrix, chief engineer at the Lone Star UAS Center at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, brought a team of eight people and four drones to Wimberley, Tex.

The drones can safely fly lower than helicopters, and provide aerial footage at a fraction of the cost. Hendrix’s group spent Thursday focused on inspecting massive debris piles — some 20 feet high — that could be dangerous for a person to walk on. The drone’s camera provided live video footage, which streamed on a monitor in the back of the group’s SUV.

Bryan Rumbaugh used a drone to film the flooded Buffalo Bayou after nearly 11 inches of overnight rainfall in Houston. (Bryan Rumbaugh)

“Is there something that’s white? Is there a garment in there?” Hendrix explained. “Is there a color that could represent a body? Is there other debris that doesn’t normally go with that particular area?”

Thursday Hendrix’s team didn’t identify any bodies. So far he said the trip’s been a valuable learning experience. One lesson they’ve learned, always bring a four-wheel drive vehicle. They’ve also had to negotiate with local landowners to get approval to fly over their property.


Linda Balas looks at the remains of a vacation home in Wimberley, Texas. (Jay Janner/AP)

“We’re used to conducting testing in a controlled environment. In this case we’re in a chaotic environment,” Hendrix said. “We’re still trying to understand and assess where drones can be used in the search and rescue and how to coordinate with the manned operations.”

The group spent Thursday night examining the data they’d gathered and preparing to fly again Friday. Facing heavy winds, Hendrix’s group was limited to using a AscTec Falcon, a drone with eight propellers.

Had the storms struck a couple weeks ago, Hendrix’s group likely wouldn’t have been able to assist. But last Thursday the FAA loosened the rules for its drone test sites, giving blanket approval for the test sites to fly drones at or below 200 feet.

Hendrix said he’d previously have to wait up to 60 days to receive FAA approval to fly a mission. He could ask for emergency approval, but even that would take three or four days.

The move reflects improved relations between the drone world and the FAA. Drone advocates have long complained that the FAA’s slow approach to making commercial drone flights legal is hampering innovation and the chance to save lives.

The American Red Cross is interested in using drones for disaster relief efforts, and is waiting for it to be legal to do so. Others have flown drones to find missing persons.

“People across the nation are so afraid of drones. The connotation of drones carrying weapons and also spying on them as they do their daily business,” Hendrix said. “We’re trying to make sure people can understand and appreciate the good side or robotics and drones. This is a case where it’s definitely an advantage to have a tool like drones.”