By Michael Winn
September 1, 2017

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effectively banned civilian drones in the Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery zone, which includes Houston, announcing that civilian drone operators flying without specific FAA authorization would be subject to significant fines. According to the FAA, personal drones can get in the way of rescue pilots and crews—compounding an already stressful situation.

It’s true that if used incorrectly, drones can make a bad situation worse. But commercial drones can also play a crucial role in saving lives after a natural disaster. Failing to utilize drones in future crises would be a huge misstep. The government should utilize a fleet of commercial drones and certified commercial drone operators to aid in rescue and recovery.

The data support this. Drones have saved 59 lives since 2013, according to a report by drone manufacturer DJI released in March 2017. From May 2016 to March 2017, drones saved 38 individuals, or an average of about one human life per week.

Drones are especially effective during floods, with 53% of life-saving drone rescues performed in areas with rising floodwaters. Drones are especially useful in floods because they can safely deliver supplies like rescue ropes and life jackets in perilous situations—like raging floodwaters—which are too dangerous for rescuers to attempt.

DJI partnered with Ireland Donegal Mountain Search and Rescue and found that while a five-person rescue team needs two hours to find a disaster victim, a drone can find that same victim in 20 minutes. They also keep rescuers safe by relaying live images of the scene, ensuring rescue operations can be planned with minimal risk.

Emergency services organizations have recognized the usefulness of drones during disasters, and many agencies are working to adopt drones for these very purposes. But organizations battling red tape can move slowly.

Meanwhile, early adopter companies and civilians registered over 600,000 drones with the FAA last year. Civilian and commercial drone operators own technology that can save lives—and the data shows that they are more than capable of doing so.

The FAA, of course, is right that keeping rescue workers safe is paramount. But this is not mutually exclusive with using the life-saving technology that many Americans now have in their homes. There are people in the Harvey recovery zone right now with technology to help find and rescue their stranded neighbors. That technology needs to be harnessed in a professional, organized manner so rescue workers can respond quickly and safely in case of a national disaster.

There is already a great model for enlisting civilian equipment owners to assist during times of emergency: The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.

Victims of disaster would benefit from the FAA establishing a similar program to utilize civilian drone pilots, and one population especially: federally licensed commercial drone pilots. The FAA has issued over 40,000 Part 107 Certified Drone Pilot Certifications since August 2016. That means there are more than 40,000 professionally trained drone pilots that could assist during emergency situations across the U.S. Furthermore, the FAA estimates that the commercial drone fleet will grow by over 10 times over the next five years from 42,000 in 2016 to about 442,000 by 2021.

If the FAA established a program similar to ARES, these professionally trained and certified pilots could volunteer, and their experience (and equipment) could be leveraged for rescues—not days after the fact, but minutes.

As Harvey’s flood waters recede, fleets of commercial drones will be used by insurance adjusters to survey damage and will be massively helpful to property owners as they file claims. But commercial drone operators can do more with their skills and equipment than assess flood damage—they can save lives, and the FAA would do well to embrace and work with them before the next disaster hits.

Michael Winn is CEO and co-founder of DroneDeploy.

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