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Drones could be enlisted to fight tornados and other climate disasters

There’s a push to send unmanned aerial vehicles to help during climate disasters like the Quad-state storms. What exactly can they do?

A drone shot shows damage from a tornado that hit on Dec. 10, in Dawson Springs, Ky. The craft are increasingly called on to play various roles in climate-based disasters. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

As storm chaser Brian Emfinger drove his hybrid SUV through northeastern Arkansas last Friday night in the aftermath of a vicious tornado, he spotted elderly people in wheelchairs outside a nursing home. So he did what he often does: he sent his DJI Mavic 3 drone into the air to investigate.

The unmanned craft captured striking images that — after he posted them to social media a few minutes later — quickly went viral, helping bring home the scope and urgency of the damage far faster than anyone on the ground. (Remarkably, the nursing home, in the small town of Monette, saw the loss of only one life despite the direct hit, as The Washington Post reported last weekend.)

“There was no question I needed to show people what was happening. And there was no question the only tool that could really do that was a drone,” Emfinger said by phone four days later as he prepared to head out to a storm in Iowa, bringing his trusty drones with him.

As the world faces the growing threat of climate disasters like the Quad-State tornadoes, which have claimed at least 88 lives and caused countless injuries and property damage, there’s a corresponding interest in using drones to help out with them — whether it’s to capture the devastation, map danger zones or even hunt for trapped victims.

Advocates envision a future filled with these little flying helpers, the devices becoming as common at emergency sites in a new era as firetrucks and helicopters.

Their approach is logical, even poetic — a human-made solution to redeem a human-created disaster. But that doesn’t mean it will work. Two-pound spinning crafts aren’t up to every task. And some forces on the ground, from regulators to first responders, aren’t in a rush to send them skyward.

The big firms all have their own tech. DJI, the Chinese drone giant that controls 80 percent of the drone market in the United States, makes high-end drones like the industrial-grade Matrice, which has thermal capabilities that can be deployed to scan for live victims in a climate disaster. DJI and other firms also make some models with “lidar,” a laser tech that can be used to see 3-D images of a disaster site. For more firepower one can go to Anduril’s ruggedly weatherproof Ghost line. (It’s used by the British Navy.)

But much of the innovation is happening at boutique firms. Las Vegas-based BRINC, for instance, makes the Lemur, which has a glass-shattering device that can get to trapped people.

Draganfly, a Saskatchewan-based company, specializes in emergencies and has spent years developing drones and software specifically to help first responders. The company has built several innovations into its drones, including medical tools that can take temperatures and detect heart rates.

“We’re hoping that in the next year or two we’ll see situations regularly where drones can come in, and very quickly collect data and deliver supplies so when the first responders arrive the situation is already being managed,” Cameron Chell, Draganfly’s chief executive, said in an interview.

The company says it has sold more than 9,000 of its crafts to first-response units across North America. Currently, it is running a training program in Texas with Cold Chain Technologies (that’s the firm working out all the vaccine logistics) to aid in the delivery of medical supplies in an emergency; more than 300 training missions have already been flown.

Another drone firm north of the border, Alberta’s Pegasus Imagery, has devised a “repeater” system for drones to facilitate communications in emergency situations like people trapped in the rubble of a tornado. The tool attaches to its drones and basically creates a small flying cell tower to hover over disaster zones where a signal is weak or knocked out, allowing service-less victims to contact first responders.

As with other drone emergency tech, the idea is for the craft to give a boost to the humans. “The drones lead the search and the helicopters can come in and do the rescue,” Pegasus chief executive Cole Rosentreter said in an interview, adding the goal is to prevent fatalities that were inevitable in a more land-bound age. “I don’t think there’s any doubt features like this will save lives,” he said.

Like other drones, Pegasus’s also target wildfires: The machines help commanders on the ground by scouting and mapping the flames from above, moving easily where humans can’t go safely.

And there’s more innovation coming. German researchers have even studied drones that can detect a distressed person’s scream and send a call for help to emergency authorities.

But questions persist with all these initiatives. One is whether they can successfully expand — let alone improve — on efforts on the ground. After all, getting the drones up is only the start of the challenge; the images have to be quickly distributed so many responders can see them.

Some companies have tried to fill this gap. Southern California’s KSI Data Sciences has created a video-streaming system for live drone footage, with those in charge of the feed able to narrow or widen access to various groups — a sort of virtual crowdsource search party. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” said KSI chief executive Jonathan Gaster. “A few years ago even if you were able to get a camera into these places there was no quick and secure way to get eyes on what it was seeing.”

Some law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have shown hesitancy, for what experts say is a mix of tradition, training, costs and liability worries. There are loose organizations in this space, like the Law Enforcement Drone Association, made up of drone-friendly officers from around the country trying to push the movement forward.

But there’s a reason many of the efforts are more in the volunteer realm, like Dronesar, a U.S.-based group of 86 volunteer pilots around the world who offer to step in to fly their drone to search for a missing person in an emergency.

And the Federal Aviation Administration — necessary for any drone progress — has been slow to get on board.

“I think the tech is there. What’s been missing, and what we’re I think hopefully starting to see in North America now, is regulation that can move forward and tackle the future of airspace,” Rosentreter said.

But change comes slowly. It was only this summer the FAA made it easier for pilots to fly at night, removing the need for a special exemption. Regulators have worried about drones interfering with aircraft or pilots losing control of their craft, causing them to plummet from 400 feet. The FAA still requires special waivers for first responders to go beyond the “tactical visual line of sight” — what they’d want to do in many disasters. To obtain such a waiver means convincing the FAA of an “extreme emergency situation to safeguard human life.”

When it comes to climate disaster, there’s this basic fact: Many drones are not optimized for the 50 mph winds of a serious storm; to send one up is to risk a few grand along with it. “In a bad storm, you have to go up when it’s over, not in the middle, unless you want to say goodbye to the drone,” Emfinger said.

That’s why some experts say drones will be increasingly helpful in climate disasters — but only for the right ones.

“If you’re using a drone to light a fire during a wildfire to control its line or to look for storm survivors the next day, those are excellent use cases,” said Sally French, a drone expert and blogger who goes by the name the Drone Girl. “If you’re sending a drone into the middle of a tornado, not so much.”

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