Drones Used in Emergency Response for Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey was a major weather event that required an equally strong emergency response effort. Unmanned aerial technology was deployed in a significant way by the region’s major electric utility company, providing situational awareness for first responders and the armada of repair crews that would follow.
Sharper Shape – an international leader in automated drone inspection technology – along with elite drone pilots from North Dakota based SkySkopes, teamed up to assist with the massive Harvey response.
The companies rapidly deployed three drone crews and six aircraft to the Houston area in the immediate aftermath of the storm’s landfall. The drone teams collected aerial imagery on an ad-hoc emergency response basis, acquiring high resolution photographic images, IR images, and providing HD streaming video to the utility’s emergency operations command center.
The teams arrived on-site on August 31st and were fully engaged for 10 days. Sharper Shape’s drone crews proved to be an excellent resource for providing situational awareness for the emergency operations command center. The drone teams could quickly reach otherwise inaccessible areas, and collect information such as whether disconnect switches were opened or closed, or if a specific repair had been completed or not. This allowed the utility to better prioritize the efforts of their heavily taxed utility repair crews.
When a substation feeding a major Houston neighborhood was inundated with water from the Buffalo Bayou, construction started immediately in a nearby church parking lot to build a new temporary substation, distribution feeders, and transmission supply. In this instance, the Sharper Shape drone crews provided an almost continuous aerial video feed of the rapidly constructed engineering project. Streaming the drone’s HD video feed directly to the utility’s emergency operations command center was an especially valuable new capability provided by Sharper Shape’s drone teams. During President Trump’s visit to the Houston area, he took the opportunity to stop by the utility’s emergency operations command center. As the President watched Sharper Shape’s live video feed on the operations center’s bank of monitors, he made note of what a valuable capability it was to have the live aerial footage, allowing the situation on the ground to be assessed in real time.
Sharper Shape also captured IR video of the newly constructed substation once it was brought online. As the new facility was picking up load, the drone team captured IR images of anomalous hot spots along they newly energized feeders. These images were immediately provided to the utility’s engineering staff for analysis and corrective action.
On September 6, 2017 at the InterDrone conference in Las Vegas, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had this to say about the value of drones in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.” The Sharper Shape/SkySkopes team figured prominently in this effort, one of the first major real world tests for unmanned aerial performing critical tasks for utility emergency responders. The value of the teams’ work was validated when, just as their Harvey work was wrapping up, two of the drone teams were asked to pack up and move east to perform similar work for the Hurricane Irma response in southern Florida. With the success of the team’s work in Houston, more and more utilities will undoubtedly add unmanned aerial capabilities to their emergency response plans in the near future.