The use of drones as a force multiplier in an emergency or disaster

By Brad M

Last 4th of July, my family helped set up thousands of flags on a lawn by our City Hall to honor Veterans from our state who had given their last full measure for their country. While doing that I heard a buzzing sound and found it to be coming from a quad copter flying down the field with a camera under it, and found the pilot to be from the local news. I spoke with him and got a chance to see his gear, which was impressive. It was a remote control with a small tablet on top that showed the first person view from his quad copter and it had another camera slung from its under carriage for filming higher quality. We spoke for a bit and I told him that it reminded me of some early recon R/C planes I had seen being tested by the Marines when I was a Corpsman. This got me thinking for a bit, but soon I had forgotten.

Fast forward to this past Christmas; my 6 year old son got a mini remote controlled quad copter. It was very cool but the second time he removed the battery to recharge it, he pulled the wires right off of the circuit board. Yeah, maybe a 6-year old and an R/C quad copter might not be the best gift. Well his older brother decided to buy him an RC copter in a cage to keep it safe, and he just needs to plug in the copter to recharge it in return for the broken quad copter. In short order my older son had repaired the quad copter and learned to fly it really well. It was cool, but it was only good for one thing, flying around the house. My son decided that he would be interested in a larger one, and soon found one on Amazon, and it had a camera. It wasn’t a first person view (FPV) camera, but it would give him an idea of what you can see and do with one. While he was waiting he did a lot of research on flying them, and what they are used for. Come to find out, that the military now uses the smaller quad copters for reconnaissance, and of course there are the large UAV’s, so now my son started to see a practical use for them.

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His drone (this was what he was calling it now) finally arrived and he learned to fly it in short order. He found that it would fly for between 6-7 minutes on a charge and had a range of about 90 feet. If my son takes off the blade guards, and landing struts, the battery lasts 7-9 minutes. The camera can be turned on and off with the remote so it only films when he tells it to. He could even fly it in very light breezes. He soon started to film his flights and share the videos with us. We were all impressed with how good he was getting and one day I was watching his latest video and saw something on the screen that change my opinion of how useful this “Toy” really could be. He had been flying around our house and then took it up to its maximum height while filming. I realized that I could clearly see houses up to 4 streets away and could make out which / whose house it was. He did a quick 360 which I started pausing and unpausing to look at the same thing. He noticed I had taken a more intense interest in his video and came over to ask what I was doing. I told him to watch and see if he noticed anything. He watched for a bit and said “No”. I told him that if we just had an earthquake, would that change his observation. He slid into the chair next to me and started to watch the screen again. After a few minutes he said “you would be able to see if anyone’s house had been knocked down, or was on fire”. “BINGO” I said. Then the scenarios started to roll off his tongue and I was impressed to say the least. He now is saving up for a drone with a longer range, an FPV camera, and a remote gimbal for better views.

So that is how we got to where we are now, but I was surprised at how inexpensively we could get some intel from our neighborhood. With the drone he has now, he can fly up or out, film, and then return and plug the micro SD card into my laptop or tablet to view what he has seen. At our last emergency preparedness group meeting in our church I brought video my son had taken of two of the group members homes. They were blown away. One is an amateur radio operator (HAM) who has a nice antenna on his roof. We had filmed his antenna and he commented on how easy this made checking for issues after a windstorm. The other person commented on how it gave him a different perspective on his roof, and had even given him a glimpse of the back yard. They had never considered the possibilities. We use a coloured placard in the front window of homes to indicate their status after an emergency and using a drone can make it faster to check since they fly pretty quick. The fact that these are battery powered means that they can be charged with a solar panel too so we don’t need to use a generator if the power is out. We have launched it out of a moving vehicle and recovered it too. This current one has a very limited payload, but you could record a message with the camera and fly it to another location where the card could be removed and then viewed.

The more expensive one being planned for can fly up to 1.25 miles away and has a “return to coordinates” setting that if it loses signal it will automatically return to. It will go to a specific alititude, fly straight to the coordinates, and then land. You can use a virtual reality(VR) type of headset to view the FPV camera, which can communicate with the transmitter to tell it when and how to turn the camera gimbal, or you can use an apple or android tablet to view it real time. The new transmitters link to the drone receiver with a digital signal that is only between the two devices. So the days of someone flipping on their radio and causing yours to crash are behind you. Also they wont interfere with your radio communication gear.

Before you ask, yes there are some cons to all of these pro’s. The biggest one being that if they are out of line of sight and you can’t fly FPV then you can lose the drone (Think recent White House event). Another is that if you set it to return to coordinates and anything gets in the way, it may not make it back. If you crash it into a tree, or onto a roof in an orientation that you cannot take off again from then you have to find another way to retrieve it. Then of course there is the potential cost of a catastrophic crash where you cannot repair the drone, or if someone thinks your drone is an NSA spy-bot and shoots it down. Lastly if you are using a radio frequency to communicate with your drone, it is not directional and you could be located by triangulation of the radio frequency, but that would require someone who knows how to, and is dedicated to finding you.

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So, what is the initial investment for something like these? The initial cost can be whatever you want it to be honestly. Our first ‘trainer’ was $20.00 on black Friday shopping and about $30.00 to $40.00 normally. There are high end purpose built drones available for upwards of $10,000.00, but that is really for a professional photographer in my opinion or someone spending our tax dollars. That being said, I see that Ranchers are using them to look over their herds, farmers are using them to look over their crops, and as you have heard places like Amazon would like to use them to make deliveries. The options really are limitless since you can program waypoints or a predetermined route into the radio and have it almost be an automated flight path.

Imagine being in a post event situation where you need an Observation Post / Lookout Post (OP/LP). You could further enhance this valuable asset by the use of a drone. The one caveat I would offer is that if you are concerned about predators of the two legged variety, then you may want to set your departure / return to site to not be right next to the drone pilot. I would also recommend the use of a spotter to keep the pilot safe while his attention is elsewhere.

All of that being said I find the benefits of a drone easily outweigh the cost of one, if done within a budget plan, following federal and local laws and regulations, and use your creativity.

 


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9 Comments

  1. Can you tell us the specific make/model number of the new “expensive” one you are looking at.
    We, too, want to get one with the features of the one like you want — but apparently we aren’t as far along in our research as you are, so that knowledge would be a big help.
    thanks

  2. Currently he is using a Syma X5c, but he is upgrading to either the Blade 350 QX3 ($1000.00) with a Fatshark First Person View headset ($230.00) with Omni Directional antenna’s ($80.00 for the pair). This would give him or a ‘wingman’ first person view up to a mile away. The Blade is the model that is supported by our local “hobby shop”, and this is important for parts and support as they are needed. If you have a retreat group and plan to add this tool to your inventory, don’t forget to include training scenarios that would prevent it from being used against you. By that I mean that someone can watch where it lands, or the fact that it isn’t silent (the higher it is, the less you can hear it, but it will be visible). Also these usually have some inexpensive LED’s on the bottom to aid in orientation for the pilot, but you could replace them with IR LED’s so you could use NV technology, or put a switch in to turn them off in daylight.

    If you haven’t thought of this yet, you could also use the fatshark tech and simple cameras (static mounted) that come with the fatshark as perimeter camera’s using small solar panels to keep the battery charged. Though you would need a transmitter from your local hobby shop too. My son thought of that for his airsoft group and it works well on bottleneck areas. He mounts it high up in a tree and then it is monitored to see if any movement comes from that direction.

    Just do your homework on what is available locally for support and service, because you will need it and start of with a cheap trainer to get the feel for it.

    One last item is that they don’t fly well in the wind and rain so be aware of that limitation and have other options available.

  3. You might want to also look at fixed wing RC aircraft. Not as flexible as multi-rotor, but since the motor is only providing thrust and not lift (wings!!) in-air time, as well as range, is extended. A friend with an aerial surveying & photography business has a couple for those smaller jobs that don’t justify cranking up the Cessna. FYI, once you get good with a better setup, try contacting realtors; you might be surprised at the interest they have in displaying aerial views of property to clients (that’s a substantial portion of his RC work). You won’t make a lot of money at it, but you can make some and also gain valuable flight time experience.

  4. I have a coworker who’s into RC/Drones and has fixed wings and copter types. I would like them for the reasons you mention. There usefulness for a retreat or farm or any other property, even vehicle based. (I see there use as a early warning or to investigate a ground sensor trip in a given sector, then send the unit to put eyes on. Perhaps to locate a missing cow, horse or person. Rigged as a repeater or ECW “Electronic Counter Electronic Warfare” platform).

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  5. Brad – enjoyed your article and inspired me to look into this further. I have read where these devices could help in certain situations but your examples – simple as they are – using in the neighborhood to “assess” conditions, checking towers, etc. makes sense. We’re in a neighborhood with roughly 1 acres lots so just “seeing” from our property out would be beneficial. Additionally, our BO locale is about 75 rectangular acres, and I could see something like this helping with that “longe-range” OP monitoring. Thanks again for the info. When you have some time, could you elaborate with more details on this: “At our last emergency preparedness group meeting in our church…” I’m curious how this works for you. Our church is way too big for something like this though I’ve been tempted to start going around the neighborhood. Just don’t want to give up my own opsec for those not interested.. make sense?

  6. @Alien, When I started looking into these “RC Toys” for other practical uses I started with Fixed wing. While serving, I saw some smaller versions used that could be kept in a backpack and then deployed quickly and then recovered. The reason I changed over to the quad-copter version is that many have a “RTB” (Return To Base) function where they will go up to a specified altitude and then using GPS technology they will fly back to their original coordinates and land. Since it does not require any run off for landing these work well in wooded or well populated areas. The ones we used in the military could be ‘caught’, but sometimes they were damaged in the process. Luckily we could usually repair them in the field.

    @Rick, We started in our church by offering “Emergency Preparedness classes and invited any who felt they had some level of expertise to come and share their skills. In our first year we also had an Emergency Preparedness Fair to allow a real showcase of different topics to get people thinking. These were good opportunities to see how knowledgeable people were, and observe their behavior before going into any detail about ourselves. Once we had a good idea of peoples skills, Opsec, and general personalities we started having a meeting with a core group of individuals who could help with medical or security issues while at church in case a disaster, or another ‘unthinkable’ occurred. I have personally made friends within this group who I trust with knowledge of my level of preparation as much as I did my team mates in the military. Not surprisingly many have served or are former / current LEO’s. This tight group arranges the training for our Emergency Preparedness classes and we have expanded to include other congregations in our area. This year we will be having a much larger Fair to include them, and doing so may increase the number of trusted friends that I just haven’t met yet as well. As I tell those who want to know why I keep inviting them to these classes, “The more of you who are prepared in any unforeseen “Event”, the fewer threats there are to my family’s safety and security”.

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