SPECIAL REPORT: Disaster Drones

Special Reports

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)- In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, trees were down in the streets, powerlines tangled together making certain roadways impossible to pass, and the night was pitch black with the exception of some blinking red lights in the sky. 

Those lights were not coming from emergency vehicles, but rather from unmanned aircraft vehicles or systems, also commonly referred to as drones. 

In the days and nights following the storm, drones were seen all over town. The devices were brought in by different news agencies, out of town first responders, FEMA contractors and some were even used by curious Bay County residents using them in their neighborhoods to assess the damage in areas they couldn’t reach by foot.

In order to pilot a drone you must: 

  • Be at least 16 years old
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English
  • Be in a physical and mental condition to safely fly a drone
  • Pass the initial aeronautical knowledge exam

According to the FAA website, drones are aircraft and operators must follow safety regulations and operators must register their drone with the FAA. Registration costs $5 and is valid for 3 years. You’ll need a credit or debit card and the make and model of your drone handy in order to register.

However, while using those drones post-storm, FAA rules were not being followed. Drones were out of sight of the pilot, being flown at night, and being flown higher than the approved height. 

“You can’t fly over 400 feet, you can’t fly over an open area of people, and you have to stay more than 5 miles away from any airport if you don’t have proper authorization,” said Haney Aviation Academy Director, David Deaton.

The B4uFly app, sponsored by the FAA, helps notify pilots where they can and cannot fly as well as the latest notifications and temporary rule changes. David Deaton said he uses the app every time he flys and it comes in handy for people who may not be familiar with their surroundings. 

“Right here at Haney, there are 5 heliports right here within Haney Technical center and the FAA considers a heliport, an airport. So you have to be able to understand that you encroach on those areas as well even if you’re just in your backyard flying,” said Deaton. 

Following the storm, the FAA released an updated notice saying that people could not fly above 120 feet because of the growing amount of emergency response units flying into and around Bay County. Due to lack of internet and cellphone service, pilots could have easily missed that notice, not knowing that flying their drone at high heights could be potentially harmful. 

“You’re not supposed to really fly any without authorization because there are some safety and emergency helicopters that are up and moving around already. So you don’t want to interfere with them at all,” said Deaton. 

The day of the storm Jose Lopez-Baquero, the Gulf Coast State College Unmanned Vehicle Systems Program Coordinator, said he and his staff were supposed to have a conference call with the Tallahassee emergency operations center and discuss how to use and deploy drones in the event of a disaster. Of course, that meeting never happened.

The team at the Bay County Emergency operations was immediately given mission numbers from FEMA and began deploying assets. The EOC team was also handling incoming drone contractors coming into the area, but say some of these contractors were not going through the proper channel. 

“The process is for them to go to the EOC, offer their services, register as a contractor, but that wasn’t happening. You’re required to have an airman certificate from the FAA, part 107 so you can fly commercially, plus you have to have insurance if a government agency is going to hire you,” said Lopez-Baquero.

Although chaotic at first following the storm, drone operations allowed agencies to access areas they would have never been able to before. Lopez-Baquero and his team plan to share their knowledge and improve the deployment procedure of drones in disasters. 

“We actually are developing some projects that are going to expand capabilities as well as share the knowledge with the region, all the other counties and possibly other parts of the state,” said Lopez-Baquero. 

Here in Panama City, some new programs are brewing when it comes to unmanned systems. Haney Technical Centers is one of the only approved FAA testing centers in the area and with the introduction of new classes and courses, they plan to make getting your part 107 license more convenient. 

“One is a long-term kind of paced course that someone would be able to come and take as a normal educational course anywhere. The other is more like a boot camp that’s quick, a lot of information, two or three very long days. It requires a lot of home study but then that will prep them for that test,” said Deaton. 

New rules when it comes to drones are to be enacted later this summer, but for now, if you’re flying a drone… be sure to follow the rules. 

“Be extremely careful because you are ultimately responsible for anything you do with that drone, but I think more than anything, you need to educate yourself. You need to understand the rules and regulations that you have to deal with, and you have to be able to operate it not just legally but also safely for all those around us,” said Deaton.

Pictured: City of Mexico Beach post-hurricane Michael

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