FEMA grounds private drone company volunteering their real time mapping services for flooded Colorado

Bradley Wint
By: - 17th Sep 2013
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After a week of major flooding in Boulder, Colorado, Falcon UAV offered their support to map the affected areas to assist with recovery efforts. They were doing it on a completely voluntary basis, only to be shut down by FEMA.

Unlike the US government which uses drones to spy on its own citizens, a private firm called Falcon UAV has offered its drone services to help map out the current state of the flood ravaged Boulder area in Colorado. They worked in part with the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Incident Management Team (IMT) by providing them with updated aerial imagery when other larger aircraft were grounded due to inclement weather.

The team estimated that they could map out a town in less than 30 minutes and have the data processed into usable form in just a few hours, but when FEMA overtook operations from the EOC, those plans had to be scrapped. FEMA immediately requested that they desist from flying drones in the area and even went on say that they could be arrested if they continued their operations.

On their blog, they had this to say:

Friday saw a reprieve in the weather and we are able to get a perfect flight off in the town of Longmont to capture aerial imagery for damage assessment at the intersection of the overflowing St Vrain river and equally inundated Left Hand Creek. In less than an hour the imagery was processed and provided to the Boulder EOC. Just as Falcon UAV was off to another damage assessment in Lyons, Colorado we were requested to standdown for National Guard helicopters now supporting evacuation efforts.

Early Saturday morning Falcon UAV was heading up to Lyons to complete a damage assessment mapping flight when we received a call from our Boulder EOC point of contact who notified us that FEMA had taken over operations and our request to fly drones was not only denied but more specifically we were told by FEMA that anyone flying drones would be arrested. Not being one to bow to federal bureaucrats we still went up to Lyons to do a site survey for how we can conduct a mission in the near future to provide an adequate damage assessment to this storm ravaged community.

While we were up there we noticed that Civil Air Patrol and private aircraft were authorized to fly over the small town tucked into the base of Rockies. Unfortunately due to the high terrain around Lyons and large turn radius of manned aircraft they were flying well out of a useful visual range and didn’t employ cameras or live video feed to support the recovery effort. Meanwhile we were grounded on the Lyons high school football field with two Falcons that could have mapped the entire town in less than 30 minutes with another few hours to process the data providing a near real time map of the entire town.

Falcon UAV would like to thank the Boulder County EOC and specifically Allen Bishop and Michael Chard (while they were running operations) for their common sense approach to drone operations, working to coordinate the airspace, as well as embracing this technology to help support the recovery effort. In contrast we are very disappointed in FEMA’s response to actively prevent the use of UAVs and drone technology when these services were offered for free and at a time when manned helicopters could be used for more critical missions such as evacuations and high mountain search and rescues in inaccessible communities.

It’s a shame that FEMA is coming down on Falcon UAV after it’s clear that their efforts are on a 100% volunteer basis, and that they could do with as much help as possible. Of course FEMA must be concerned about national security as well but the intentions of Falcon UAV were beneficial when they worked with the EOC, so what’s the fuss?


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