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.

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 Pos