In this article, see how drones are being used to aid in emergency response and what lessons the UAS team took away from the experience.

The Mississippi River experienced an unusual rise in volume late in 2015 that reached flood stage elevation (50.5 feet) at Knox River Landing, La., on Dec. 14, 2015. The river crest occurred at that location on Jan. 20, 2016, reaching 63.33 feet (12.8 feet above flood stage) and remained above flood stage until Feb. 7, 2016. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) monitored the river stage and condition of levee systems during this entire period using employees from across the New Orleans District (MVN) in activities called Phase I Flood Fight and Phase II Flood Fight.

The MVN Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Team became very integrated with the high-water inspections and monitoring of the Mississippi River & Tributaries (MR&T) System. UAS crews deployed throughout south Louisiana, including structures at the Old River Control Complex, Morganza Spillway, Bonnet Carre Spillway and at Avoca Island (near the Atchafalaya River).

Between Dec. 31, 2015 and Feb. 15, 2016, the team performed 75 sorties totaling more than 22 hours of flight time. The UAS team was utilized in a wide range of applications ranging from structural inspections, determining how water flows through spillways based on gate opening configurations, and in response to levee slides. There were no mishaps or incidents during the entire operation.

Currently, MVN has four trained pilots qualified to operate UAS (a.k.a drones) to include required Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certifications. The office operates the senseFly eBee and eBee RTK (fixed-wing) and the DJI Phantom Vision 2+ series quad copters (vertical-takeoff and landing).

Lessons Learned: Operating UAS

The Flood Fight tested the UAS team’s emergency response capabilities, revealing some strengths and weaknesses that require attention to assure future success. These include:

Coordinate Permits Around Major Projects Prior to Emergency Events

UAS operations [by the USACE] require an Army Airworthiness Release (AWR) and a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. MVN had existing permits at Old River Control and Bonnet Carre, which allowed for immediate response. However, MVN did not have permits at Avoca Island, which required MVN to obtain an emergency COA. These emergency permits are not ideal in this type of circumstance because of their short duration (one to two weeks). MVN had to refile for an emergency COA extension at Avoca Island to operate over the six-week flood event.

Established Relationships to Local, State and Federal Partners

The MVN UAS team has developed positive relationships with the FAA Tactical Operations (AJR-2) and the Army Aviation Engineering Directorate (AED) who are responsible for issuing permits. Working closely with these partners on day-to-day operations has developed trust and understanding between these organizations. These permits generally take four to six weeks to obtain for normal UAS operations. However, the FAA and AED were able to issue the emergency permits as rapidly as within four hours of request.

MVN has also developed close relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement through previous flood events. These developed relationships were leveraged to ensure site access and safety between operations of manned and unmanned systems.

These relationshps were especially important when the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened. The Bonnet Carre Spillway is located near Norco, La., and it was opened on Jan. 10, 2016 to lower river stages on the river levees protecting New Orleans. The structure diverts water from the Mississippi River through a narrow stretch of land and into Lake Pontchartrain, which connects to the Gulf of Mexico.

The structure’s opening typically creates much attention from the public, and a scheduled Sunday opening drew several hundred people, including many families who arrived by car and by foot atop the Mississippi River levee to watch the structure and a surge of flood water flow into the spillway. However, the public and media event also drew aircraft.

This media event situation is one area for further improvement and coordination. Although there was never any danger, the UAS team had to shut down part of their operations due to manned helicopters flying too close to the flood control structure. MVN requested a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) around the structure, but was unable to quantify the number of manned aircraft in the area and could not get one issued. There was a common lack of appreciation of how many media helicopters and privately owned aircraft would fly over the event. We also developed the understanding that no amount of coordination can prevent these flyovers and we will need to operate with appropriate cautions.

Qualified, Motivated UAS Operators

Our ideal UAS emergency response team is preferably two three-man crews with enough operational experience and equipment to respond to needed emergency response missions. Besides being qualified to operate both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, the responders should be certified boat operators to access flooded sites. For mapping missions, UAS crews also need to have thorough knowledge and experience with survey equipment and survey GPS to ensure the elevation models and imagery end products are accurate.

Redundant Aircraft and Equipment

A UAS team must have backup unmanned systems to ensure operational success in emergency response missions. UAS teams should ideally have a backup system available in case of mishaps or equipment malfunction. Equally as important is to ensure teams are equipped with appropriate backup parts (wings, propellers, cables, batteries, etc.).

Availability of Logistical Support Equipment

Often, one of the most crucial aspects of being able to complete emergency response work is something as simple as being able to access a worksite. UAS teams need the flexibility to be able to access a variety of sites despite poor field conditions. Logistical equipment includes having four-wheel-drive trucks, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), flatboats, cabin boats and airboats. Both UAS and survey operations are field-oriented operations that require available logistical equipment, support surveying equipment and the knowledge of how to safely conduct field operations.

The data collected during this flood fight is testament to this emerging UAS technology in the continued protection of people and property along the lower Mississippi River and the Atchafalaya River Basins. The ability to get an aerial perspective has brought an invaluable asset to emergency management for USACE.

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