FEMA Grounds Private Drones That Were Helping To Map Boulder Floods, Threatens To Arrest Operators

from the heckuva-job dept

As you may have heard, Boulder, Colorado has been hit by massive flooding over the past week, and it’s been something of a mess. A local company, Falcon UAV, makers of special drones which are built for the government, approved by the FAA, and specialize in using GPS and cameras to generate highly accurate maps, started helping to map the damage with those drones. It was basically making very useful, near real-time maps showing the floods. You’d think that would be useful to, say, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of helping to coordinate the response to the floods. Instead, FEMA ordered the drones grounded or it would have people from Falcon UAV arrested. Once again, this isn’t just some guy with a toy quadcopter trying to take photos. These are drones designed for this sort of thing. As the company explains, this grounding made little sense, and possibly held back relief 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.

[…] We are very disappointed in FEMAs 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.

Sure, you can understand why federal officials would be initially careful about what was happening, but Falcon UAV had already been working with local Boulder County officials to do this effort, and it was clear that what its drones were doing was helpful. Shutting it down with no explanation and threatening to arrest the operators just seems like FEMA shoving people around because it can.

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Comments on “FEMA Grounds Private Drones That Were Helping To Map Boulder Floods, Threatens To Arrest Operators”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“We’re from the government, and we have no idea how to help.”

President Ronald Reagan called the phrase ?the nine most terrifying words in the English language? in 1986. The phrase and Reagan?s comments are still cited today, especially by conservative media commentators such as Sean Hannity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

hey Tin Foil anti-gov guys — FEMA’s not perfect, but neither is any for-profit business that I’ve worked with. Maybe this is a poor call on some gov administrator’s part, but I’m pretty sure no company would be flying choppers all day to rescue small clusters of US citizens trapped in the mountains — not without charging them an arm and a leg. That’s for sure!

Michael (profile) says:

I would expect FEMA to want to restrict people from flying drones during a crisis. When you are trying to fly in rescue aircraft, the last thing you want is a bunch of tiny unregistered aircraft flying around you, but it seems like a professional outfit already working with law enforcement and government agencies could pretty easily coordinate with their efforts.

Ace (profile) says:

Re: Re:

FEMA doesn’t have authorization over airspace, its 100 percent FAA. It’s even very clearly stated in FEMA records:

DOT/Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the operation and regulation of the U.S. National Airspace System, including during emergencies.

Also, the drone operators were using FAA licensed and authorized equipment. That means they act with the same authority as a pilot flying a 747. The fact that its controlled remotely doesn’t change anything.

FEMA was absolutely in the wrong; despite what may appear to be best intentions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Two points: The craft are not particularly small, and they are registered with the FAA. With my own experience within Civil Air Patrol, any outside help at lower altitudes is an incredible boon. These are volunteers spending their own time and money, and usually do not have the sort of advanced equipment necessary to do this sort of damage mapping. That FEMA would dismiss their offer and efforts out of hand is troubling to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

the reason for this is simple. it wasnt pre arranged with the government and the NSA hadn’t time to put any ‘spy’ apparatus into the drones. on top of which, anyone trying to do something that may be of real benefit to the people are instantly forbidden to do so in case the results are released and more want to follow that course. we all know that actually helping the people, you know, to stay alive is the last thing a government wants, unless it has been previously authorised!!

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

You might think that this is wrong, but FEMA is in the right on this. This was a government operation to survey damage, but a private company whose only goal was to profit over their so-called ‘help’. Until FEMA is able to determine a course of action, private contractors like Falcon UAV would just get in the way.

The government probably has their own private sub contractors for this sort of thing.

I don’t fault FEMA in the least. Until FEMA can address a course of action to take, sub contractors like Falcon UAV tried to take advantage of a possible situation in order to make money. FEMA probably already has sub contractors under contract and, at any rate, this is where local law enforcement, S.A.R. and other relief organizations like the American Red Cross are more trained to deal with circumstances like this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s even worse, you just admitted that FEMA refused free help because they have their private contractor buttbuddies to shovel money into for likely inferior, slower, less reliable services. Services that will only go into effect once the disaster is done and all the people who could have been saved are dead.

But that’s really just standard operating procedure for FEMA. Maybe they were worried about violating the status quo of coming in after everything is over and saying “Yep! We sure helped!”.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Um...

re: kenichi tanaka @5

You might think that this is wrong, but FEMA is in the right on this….

Not sure if Poe.

As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States
Encrypted with Morbius-Cochrane Perfect Steganographic Codec 1.2.001
Monday, September 16, 2013 11:10:09 AM
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Patr says:

Re: Falcon UAV

I read several news reports that Falcon was donating their drones, operators and mapping software and were fully integrated into the local emergency response plan.

Here is one link to the information http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/aerial-robots/falcon-uav-provides-colorado-flooding-assistance-until-fema-freaks-out

Sounds like FEMA wasn’t flexible enough to adapt to a situation that was under control and providing valuable assistance in an emergency.

Alsee says:

Re: Re:

“a private company whose only goal was to profit over their so-called ‘help’…
Falcon UAV tried to take advantage of a possible situation in order to make money.”

Damn straight.
To quote the article “these services were offered for free”…. that’s zero of MY TAX DOLLARS that the government would have been handing over to this money-grubbing private company.

Brian says:

Re: Re:


In the article they specifically mentioned the contractor was doing this for free. Where is the profit in that? Now, if you’re suggesting they are doing this to build name recognition and that will make money down the line, I still don’t see a problem with this.

The article mentioned that FEMA and their resources did not have the ability to adequately map the town because of the high terrain.

DaniOcean says:

Re: Re:

Pretty bold claim there. From the information the company is willing to provide free assistance to local law enforcement and public safety agencies as a community service. Something quite common around the country. Additionally, FEMA allowed other private individuals to fly aircraft in the area and help with the rescue efforts, they just grounded the drones.

Until I hear FEMA’s side of the story I will reserve judgement, but I’m already biased against them, because they prove their incompetence time and time again.

Richard says:

Re: Re:

They were offering the assistance of the drones for FREE. They were in no way attempting to profit from the disaster. Get off your high horse, FEMA are in the wrong. It’s a company who already work with local and government agencies as is mentioned several times both in the article and the comments, and could have easily coordinated with FEMA. Do you not realise how important up-to-date maps and information are in a situation like this?

If you REALLY want a conspiracy theory, how about FEMA not wanting pictures taken of the fracking facilities which are now underwater and leaking dangerous chemicals into the flood water?

Amie says:

Re: paranoia of businesses

That doesn’t make any sense. The government isn’t virtuous or right in this. Falcon UAV isn’t making money operating those. It’s using what they have to help. A business making money isn’t an inherently evil thing either — especially when they are making things to help people in a disaster.

The bigger question is, why wouldn’t FEMA want that information? It could save people’s lives. But you think the government is in the right because a business owns the drones? That is ridiculous and senseless.

They can map the area that FEMA needs to operate in. Not wanting that kind of help sounds extremely fishy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Read the last paragraph;

“[…] We are very disappointed in FEMAs 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.”

Ryan Presson says:

Re: Kenichi Tanaka

Did you even read that article? They were doing it all for free. There was no profiteering here. A gov’t entity came in a shut them down after they were already in the area working with the boulder sheriffs Office.

I quote from the article – […] We are very disappointed in FEMAs 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.

Beads says:

Re: Re:

This comment reflects a problem with today’s younger generation- being taught that Capitalism is bad. It is actually OK to profit- even in a time of crisis. If they make a profit great- if no one wants there data, that’s fine too (and they lose money). Companies that “gouge” end up suffering in the long term, especially with hyper connected media freaks. Angie’s list? Rating system on Amazon? Let them fly, and let the market settle the mater.

Ky Zirkle says:

Re: you're joking, right?

Did you even read the article? Falcon UAV was already working with local government, FOR FREE, the UAV’s are made for the government(gee, would that make them a sub-contractor?), and they’re registered with the FAA. I realize since Falcon was doing it for free it meant FEMA couldn’t charge for it but come on, you’d think an agency with the word “management” in it’s name would be better at managing it’s available resources, especially ones offered for free. Do you work for FEMA?

John says:

Re: Re:

Kenichi, your argument is full of flaws. First, how do you know that it is the intent of Falcon UAV to “to profit over their so-called ‘help?'” Is it impossible for a business to provide philanthropy in its own community? I think not. Second, even if Falcon intended to make a profit in some way, why is this a priori a bad thing, especially if they are providing useful, perhaps life-saving, service? At least Falcon is making their profit in a voluntary fashion on the market, as opposed to FEMA, which funds its operations via coercive extraction from the population (aka tax dollars).
Finally, your point about “training”: Falcon UAV is a company that, according to their website, specializes in unmanned aerial reconnaissance. Falcon UAV was attempting to perform aerial damage assessment using their drones, and apparently nothing more. This IS their area of expertise, this IS what they are trained to do. Just because they don’t have badges or government affiliations doesn’t mean they aren’t professionals. In fact, given how incompetent FEMA is, I would assume Falcon is even more qualified for this job.

co_alpine (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“but a private company whose only goal was to profit” so, when was making a profit a bad thing? if more companies actually did this our need to bail our companies with taxpayer money would go away. the cost to run a UAV with video systems is going to be a lot less of a cost and a lot more of a help than flying full aircraft around all day just looking.

MDK THOR 221 says:

Re: Response to: kenichi tanaka on Sep 16th, 2013 @ 1:05pm

It said the services were being offered for free. So how was Falcon UAV going to make a profit? Also if they were already there and capable providing the type of services that would save lives, why hamper it? Oh wait, I know why. Because somebody with more than one brain cell had already stepped up to help.

Anon says:

Re: Response to: kenichi tanaka on Sep 16th, 2013 @ 1:05pm

Where you live drugs must be pretty good. Cause you’re off in Lala land.
FEMA has THE WORST track record of any agency in the government. They sat on their asses for Katrina. The two hurricanes in The northeast they did nothing for three years.
They are offing Americans in record times.
A private contractor wanted to make money? They specifically said “FREE” . So they generate some publicity for themselves. No big deal. They could have SAVED HUMAN LIVES. But according to you ” oh god forbid we hire someone who is a private company” obviously the Feds couldn’t handle the situation(surprise!!)

Quite frankly your reasoning sucks

Judy says:

Re: kenichi tanaka

You might have more information, but the article above and the website of the Falcon UAV company state that this was being done on a volunteer basis, as the company is located in this hard-hit area of Colorado. You know, helping your neighbors? I don’t see where you are getting the “profit” motive. The article also states other private aircraft and helicopters were on hand and were allowed to volunteer, just NOT the drones. So, there must be a different motive.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think it’s a case where people are making FEMA unnecessary. It’s actually adding to its own capacity. Partnering with the drone company would not only extend their abilities to provide support and relief but it would also be amazing PR for both sides. Instead FEMA now looks like a bunch of assholes and the drone guys look like the good guys.

Christopher Best (profile) says:

Re: Authority?

What do you mean by FAA approved?

Unmanned aircraft can only operate in controlled airspace with a Letter of Agreement from whoever in the FAA owns that airspace. And then, only one UAS can be operating in that airspace at one time.

That being said, the Falcon is just a big R/C plane. It’s not the sort of UAS that would operate in controlled airspace anyway. It most likely flies well below what the FAA is in charge of.

As to FEMA’s authority… Go read the executive orders that empower them sometime. They can do anything they want, including drafting civilian “consultants” and forcing them to perform services without compensation during an emergency. They are a very scary group of people who I wouldn’t want to ever have anything to do with.

Ace (profile) says:

Re: Re: Authority?

UAVs can operate anywhere a licensed pilot with a Class 2 medical exam can. The LoA would be from the local ATC controlling that airspace.

The FAA controls all airspace; even that used by hobbyists, which are allowed to operate below 400 ft.

Currently the FAA does not distinguish between large UAVs and micro-UAVs, but that may change in the upcoming months. And that’s where most people who operate UAVs get themselves into trouble.

Also, FEMA does not have any authority over the airspace, even stated in FEMA documentation available on their website: “DOT/Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the operation and regulation of the
U.S. National Airspace System, including during emergencies. “

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why does the government hate US citizens so much?

It is much easier to take over large aspects of our lives this way. There is no ulterior motive, there are no hidden agenda’s. In the view of the government no one else is better equipped to ruin or improve your life therefore they should be the ones over seeing that effort.

FEMA as a federal agency technically could have been told to naf off if the local authorities really wanted to do so, but since Federal Dadio is responsible for providing/controlling some relief funds and assistance everyone just folds and lets them run the show because all things considered, things just go smoother if you don’t clench.

Joe Dirt says:

Re: Re: Why does the government hate US citizens so much?

“In the view of the government no one else is better equipped to ruin or improve your life therefore they should be the ones over seeing that effort.”

This is the main reason that big government is bad. As wacko as many of the Tea Party people seem, this is the basis for their argument about government size/power/intrusion. In essence, “Don’t Tread On Me!”

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve been saying it since Katrina and people still don’t seem to want to listen.

FEMA isn’t there to primarily provide emergency response and relief for disasters. They exist mainly to provide cover-your-ass for the politicians who are typically asleep at the wheel when this kind of shit happened. To provide the good cover stories, excuses, and bullshit in order for the government to walk out of a major incident blameless. They are mainly politicians first and disaster relief second.

They likely don’t want the drones exposing some major act of incompetence that has made the floods that much worse/or is going to make it much worse.

Or worse, they want to have that plausible deniability for when something really does go wrong. They don’t want drones and technology giving them all the information they need to actually do something to help the situation. If they do that, then they would have no real excuse for themselves if something really DOES go horribly wrong. So they order the drones and relief efforts to be stalled until it’s apparent that a fall-man is established or that their involvement can not fail.

It’s the sad state of affairs we live in. Even sadder that people still trust government acronym organizations like them.

AzureSky (profile) says:

please understand something, people running these agencies and their efforts are enlarge from former generations who dont understand todays world or the tech we have.

They do not like what they do not understand.

its the same reason so many in congress are anti-internet and pro MAFIAA they dont understand the tech but they know what they are told to believe…

bob says:

@Anonymous Coward, Sep 16th, 2013 #20 & #22

What an utterly stupid thing to write and it’s plainly obvious you’re not here to see this disaster up close and personal but I am.

The reason they don’t want drones flying in that area is because there are close to 20 helicopters in the air and many of them are are actually picking up victims and stranded first responders IN Lyons today. There’s no conspiracy or no cya crap just common sense for the aircrews who are helping rescue the victims in a confined airspace.

Take off your tin foil hat. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Great use of the reply function there, Bob!

FEMA is a giant bureaucratic organization that has only helped themselves first and everyone else second. If you were old enough when Katrina happened (You’re probably not) you would remember how utterly ineffective their response was even after they were given authorization to be there.

Also “MUH HELICOPTERS” is a piss-poor excuse for your failed education on aviation. There are hundreds of helicopters in operation at any time of the day in any given airspace, the drones don’t “threaten” any of them because they have flight plans as well as the drones. This was a civil service being offered for free that would have even eliminated the need of using mass numbers of helicopters.

Not that you care, you’re one of the few people on the internet I meet who still believes the government isn’t serving itself first. “HURR TINFIOL HATTER” is a common excuse of the uneducated and stupid to keep themselves from realizing just how little the government cares about you.

Read a fucking book sometime and maybe learn how FEMA works to undermine actual disaster relief organizations.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Also I like how you are so ignorant that you fully admit that they want to have their own operators doing disaster oversight. Yet you don’t realize that by having their operators doing oversight, they also clean their hands of any screw-ups that may occur under their watch. Excellent “refuting” work there Bob. Pretty much acknowledging the point of the person you’re calling a “tinfoil hatter” but then parroting the key point he was trying to make.

Maybe you should call a septic truck to flush your head, it’s clear that brown liquid you keep in there is beginning to overflow quite a bit.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Drones need the publicity.

If the drones were allowed to launch, it would have been an excellent public relations moment for benevolent uses of UAVs. These days, drones are known for spying on and killing silos of civilians (despite all efforts of the Tacocopter).

Here they could have saved lives, and were denied.

As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States
Encrypted with Morbius-Cochrane Perfect Steganographic Codec 1.2.001
Monday, September 16, 2013 11:10:09 AM
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Anonymous Coward says:

FEMA was just safeguarding its employees privacy you wouldn’t want them to be caught on camera ransacking houses would you?

On a serious note though, I am for things that work no matter what the reasons behind them, good or bad those are the things that we use to justify or condemn stuff, but in this case even though Falcon UAV could be accused of trying to get some good PR and marketing material they could use in the future for free (oh the horror), why not? They are a proven company, that already works and sells to law enforcement and other parts of the government, why not coordinate?

Ever since Bush Jr. screwed up FEMA hierarchy it was never the same again, they used to plan and put out good white papers on how to prepare oneself in case of disasters some of their gasifier designs are used to this day, but that was before Bush Jr.

Disaster after disaster FEMA seems to do nothing that is helpful, in fact it seems to be more harmful that good, sure in the 80’s they still were incompetent and irresponsible but apparently after the 90’s they decided to take it to the next level and be complete idiots about how to respond to crisis.

OneSeraph (profile) says:

So, Falcon UAV claims that they went to the sight to provide help. When they arrived they were informed that the most helpful thing they could do is to stay out of the air space. In other words do nothing. Falcon UAV is now complaining that they were not allowed to help. This seems like a PR stunt on the part of Falcon UAV. For Falcon UAV it’s a win-win, if the UAV’s actually provide some material benefit they look like hero’s if they are not allowed too fly then they are being bullied by the big bad government. Anyone who actually wanted to help would have more understanding about staying out of the way of rescue aircraft. Peoples lives are more important than a technology demonstration. Despite what Falcon UAV may have to say about it. They obviously don’t only care about their press release. Falcon UAV have lost any credibility that they might have had. They are definitely not the people I want around if my life is on the line because they clearly couldn’t care less.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Anyone who actually wanted to help would have more understanding about staying out of the way of rescue aircraft. Peoples lives are more important than a technology demonstration. Despite what Falcon UAV may have to say about it.

Do you have any evidence at all, or did you just decide they’re evil out of thin air? Keep in mind they had been working with Boulder County emergency services previous to being shut down; they weren’t just randomly butting in where they weren’t wanted. Do you have information indicating that they were offering their services free of charge solely to get good press?

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, they created the press release complaining that they were not allowed to participate. FIMA never asked for Falcon UAV’s help, so they were just butting in. Not to mention the omission that FEMA did give a reason “Keeping the airspace clear for rescue aircraft”. Actions speak louder than words. If Falcon UAV just wanted to help they could have done so without creating a press release filled with fake outrage. The fact is, they made a point of getting this “story” to the press. In my opinion that makes them the sort of people who just want to benefit from the misfortune of others.

Falcon UAV first has the nerve to conduct itself in this shameless and self serving way. Then have audacity to think that we are so stupid that we won’t recognize they’re ridiculous self promotion for what it is. Disgusting!

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Private aircraft were not allowed in the airspace.
See http://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_3_4481.html

The 20+ helicopters could certainly engage in rescue operations, including landing.

As for mapping operations, FEMA has the authority to request military resources. Military overflights could provide whatever level of mapping precision required, full stop. If FEMA needed Mapping resources to conduct operations, they have access to far better technology than Falcon UAV can provide.

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You will note that I said if such services were needed. Also on a side note, it is very likely that the military already has the updated maps. The USA has what can only be described as formidable orbital reconnaissance capability. That means any weather day or night at high resolution ect..

All of which is off point. The point is FEMA did not want Falcon UAV or anyone other than search and rescue in the airspace. A very sensible position to take. A necessary position to take from a logistics position. Falcon UAV must understand the situation, however they decided to go ahead with a very self serving PR stunt, with no regard for the people in harms way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“has the nerve to conduct itself in this shameless and self serving way. Then have audacity to think that we are so stupid that we won’t recognize they’re ridiculous self promotion for what it is. Disgusting”

I’m glad you were able to get that off your chest, now maybe you could share how you actually feel about it.

Chest beating and hand waving aside, I hear complaints about people not doing enough, complaints about people doing too much … not so much.

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yeah, OK
That is a fair criticism of my “perhaps” overly enthusiastic comment.

That said, I was not complaining about Falcon UAV’s desire to help. My complaint is that once they were told that the best thing they could do was to keep they’re aircraft out of the airspace. Something Falcon UAV should understand (the complexity of managing the SAR airspace) as an aerial reconnaissance company. They could have and should have left it at that, with FEMA aware that the resource is available if needed. What Falcon UAV did was create a press release with misleading information and fake outrage. Not what I would describe as helpful.

Anonymous Coward says:

No surprise here I mean it’s FEMA! They paid me almost 2000$ per day to park my semi on an airstrip after Katrina and I sat there for 10 days.
Yes.. I was paid 20 grand to sit on a fucking airstrip with bottled water. I’m not bitching about it, but honestly I would have rather just dropped the trailer. It made me feel like a dick to be taking so much money to do nothing while people were suffering..
Even Worse the owner operators there were being paid upwards of five grand per day.

I will never understand the reasoning of FEMA..

Todd Bradley says:

Disaster airspace is closed to private craft

This has nothing to do with private services or how much money the company is or isn’t making. The FAA (not FEMA) shut down airspace to civil aviation. These drones are privately owned and operated. That means they can’t fly into the evacuation zones any more than the 9 News helicopter or someone’s private business jet. I’m OK with that. Personally I’d prefer to avoid a scenario where a Chinook evacuating a couple dozen people out of Lyons ingests a private drone and crashes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lots of overreaction and hyperbole in this thread but the author of this article and several others articles like it are overreacting. Additionally, it seems like the UAS/UAV manufacturer was just looking for free publicity, which they seem to be getting.

The Falcon UAS operators should know very well the FAA restrictions on flying UAS/UAVs within US domestic airspace – they know better than to just fly their aircraft without FAA approval. The FAA allows UAVs to fly on an extremely limited basis in the in US airspace primarily for safety reasons (read accidental collision with manned aircraft).

This article reads like the airspace above and around Boulder is already full of manned aircraft (they reference civil air patrol and private aircraft) so adding unmanned aircraft to the mix is potentially hazardous considering the lack of air traffic control at low altitudes.

It sounds like FEMA needs to do a better job of explaining why they don’t wan the UAV flying (FAA regulations, safety) or, even better, working with the UAV operator to get a temporary permit if the UAV is being as effective as these articles claim.

TL;DR – FAA regulations don’t allow UAVs to be flown ad hoc within US airspace for safety reasons. FEMA didn’t explain; this article author doesn’t seem to do research; manned aircraft + UAVs in uncontrolled airspace is a recipe for disaster.

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

They may have had permission to fly in the airspace before the flood. Once the flood started it became disaster airspace. Disaster airspace is closed to all private aircraft in order to clear the airspace for search and rescue operations. Falcon UAV was well aware of that fact at the time, yet they created a press release with fake outrage just the same.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

They may have had permission to fly in the airspace before the flood. Once the flood started it became disaster airspace.

The were working with Boulder County EOC (Emergency Operations Center) after the flood to provide mapping services. Again, these people were not just randomly trying to fly their drones around uninvited. The authorities were already working with the during the disaster until FEMA stopped them. I’m not saying FEMA doesn’t have the legal authority to do what they did – from what I’ve heard they have the authority to do pretty much anything. But I think you’re painting a misleading picture of what was happening.

OneSeraph (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Once the flood was declared a disaster, the NOTAM was issued as is standard procedure. The NOTAM in this case http://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_3_4481.html

It does not matter what Falcon UAV was doing before that. Falcon UAV and anyone else that might want to fly in that airspace were informed that “No pilots may operate an aircraft in the areas covered by this NOTAM” and the reason for the NOTAM is “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR LARIMER COUNTY FLOODING SAR”.

Being in the aviation business, one would expect that Falcon UAV would be familiar with these procedures and expect them as a matter of course. I have little doubt that they did. That means that they’re press release was full to bursting with false shock and false outrage.

So, one of three things is true.

1. Falcon UAV made the press release in good faith. Meaning they are either so inexperienced or so incompetent that you do not want they’re help.

2. Falcon UAV are so stupid that they truly don’t understand the words “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR LARIMER COUNTY FLOODING SAR”. In which case you do not want them anywhere near the disaster area.

3. Falcon UAV new full well what they were doing with this blatant self serving PR stunt.

Me, I think it’s number three, but hey I could be giving them too much credit. Maybe they really are a bunch of incompetent morons. But if that’s true? How good do think they’re maps are? hmmm..

Anonymous Coward says:

Largest aerial evacuation since Katrina in progress? Check.
Bunch of amateurs trying to fly drones while you’re busy looking for the seven hundred people who are missing? Check.
Constant flights of helicopters over flood-damaged areas? Check.

They will have time for mapping after the rescues are over. I think they were just jumping the gun in their eagerness to help.

acer328 (profile) says:

Trying to correct misinformation

A lot of really terrible information is being passed around in these comments.

No, FEMA does not have any authority over air space. That is 100% FAA. Here is a quote from FEMA documentation, “DOT/Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the operation and regulation of the U.S. National Airspace System, including during emergencies.”

Yes, the operators were legally operating the UAV so long as they have a pilot license and a Class 2 medical examination, then they are treated the same as any other pilot.

If they do not have a pilots license, they must have completed ground school and still have a Class 2 medical exam. The UAV must be registered with the FAA; including each piece having a serial number.

To fly for not-profit means being associated with a research entity under a Certificate of Authorization (CoA), such as a state university or the government. There isn’t anything in the regulations stating that a company or individual that has complied with all FAA regulations cannot operate for profit, provided they are not trying to profit under a CoA.

xanthaos (profile) says:


It truly amazes me how fervently some people will argue a point while being completely oblivious to what it is they are arguing. Perhaps some enlightenment is in order for this dark path…

First of all, regardless of who it was, be it FEMA or the FAA, they were in all rights to lock down the airspace. Here is why. Emergencies and disasters are already a breeding ground for unknowns, and as anyone who understands basic math can tell you, you can’t solve anything with unknowns. For Falcon to just show up and want to start putting their technology in the air becomes an unknown.

Disaster response is not something that just happens. Organizations such as FEMA and associated organizations practice and drill year-round for these events. They run tabletop scenarios, have resource assignment and mapping, and put those paper plans into play in real-world exercises. So when Falcon comes along and starts putting their birds in the air, these devices do not fit in with the practiced plans. Pilots don’t know that they are there, and in the rigors of trying to fly in rain and wind the UAV’s are difficult to see. It’s asking for the UAV to become rotor mince.

Falcon was shut down because of that one fact: they were an unknown that could potentially complicate a situation already filled with enough unknowns. I understand that Falcon only wanted to help and I applaud this, but I also question this as being their motive. If Falcon truly had an interest in humanitarian uses for their devices, why were they not offering their technology to FEMA for Free before such emergencies occurred? Why was Falcon not at the last tabletop exercise, or at the last drill? Why did Falcon not devote time and resources to training and preparation just like everyone else did?

It seems more to me that Falcon saw a press opportunity. They saw the chance to stamp their UAV ads with “The UAV that worked the Colorado Floods…” and went for it. PR, plain and simple. The way to tell if I am wrong or not is if Falcon does indeed start contributing time and resources to tabletop exercises and real-world drills. If they are willing to go through the whole process for “free” then perhaps they are sincere. I guess we’ll see…

And frankly all of this governmental bashing and personal bashing in here, is any of it, even one person, based on either experience or training in emergency management? Does anyone else here truly see why Falcon can’t just drop in at the last minute and be a planned asset? It’s the same reason that ham radio operators can’t expect to do it either. Hams have to train regularly and attend exercises in order to be ready to serve. Moreover their role within an emergency is already clearly defined and therefore ceases to be yet another “unknown”. Finally, they truly do serve for “free”, as federal law prohibits them from accepting any sort of financial recompense for their service. And even though they can’t get paid and likely won’t get more than a two or three word mention in any press coverage, they continue to train and attend training year-round. Where is Falcon?

Perhaps if people were to take time to look at this from an objective point of view rather than their own narrowly-biased viewpoints they would see the obvious. It’s simple math: you have to eliminate unknowns to solve the equation.

Oh, and to Anonymous Coward: FEMA wants civilians to die? Can you please provide some hard documented evidence of this? And if you truly feel that the federal government wants you to kill over and become a statistic, I recommend choosing another landmass where FEMA isn’t involved…

And before you even ask, I am not a FEMA or government employee of any kind… I’m just a regular joe. A regular joe that happens to have emergency management training and a shred of common sense…

xanthaos (profile) says:

Isn't enough enough?

Seriously, has anyone bothered to read the preceding post, or was it simply too detailed or too truthful? Let’s recap:

Disasters and emergencies are filled with unknowns. Regardless of how much any particular agency, FEMA included, practices their scenarios and plans, there will invariably exist conditions which occur that are not covered by the plans. Does this mean that FEMA is ill-prepared or wants people to die? Let’s look at another agency that faces the same problem: EMS. When responding to medical or trauma emergencies, nearly none of them are textbook. Regardless of the years of experience, countless hours of drills and training, and years of schooling that a paramedic has, they will rarely encounter any two patients that are either identical or “textbook”. Because of this invariable problem of unknowns, patients do sometimes die, despite the best efforts of the paramedic. And it happens often. Does this mean that paramedics want people to die? NO. I am speaking from experience as I was a paramedic for several years. Poop happens.

Variables and Unknowns. It is these conditions that make an emergency an emergency. If all of the factors were known and there existed no variables or unknowns, then there would be no emergency since any agency could simply follow the playbook and everything would be fine. Cause-effect. Problem-solution. 1+1=2. I challenge you to show me how Katrina or Colorado is so cut and dry. Show me that there are no variables or unknowns. It’s simple math: the more unknowns you have, the more difficult the equation is to solve. Emergencies are the same way. FEMA, EMS, ARES, RACES, MARS, Fire Departments, National Guard, and every other involved agency understands the same fact. That is why they devote time to attending planning, exercises, and drills, so they are not unknowns. They know exactly what their role is, who they report to, and how things are to be accomplished. In this way they become part of an integrated team that is working together in roles that don’t have to be carved out at the last minute. Everyone has a job and they know exactly what that job is. They also know how their job will affect the jobs of the other players. Paramedics and fire fighters know that they will need assistance from private construction companies (those that have attended the exercises) to clear heavy debris and remove hazards so they can safely reach the patients. And these construction company heavy equipment operators know that they will be making it possible to get to victims. They’ve even practiced working in tandem so that the job can be done safely even when both the equipment and paramedics are in the same place at the same time.

I’m not against private organizations wanting to help with disaster and emergency situations, in fact I’m all for it. The UAV’s would have been a highly valuable asset in Colorado. First of all they would have allowed FEMA to keep some or even most of the rescue helicopters staged on the ground, which would have saved fuel and also presented less of a risk to the lives of the pilots and crews. The UAV’s could have also been used to assess the areas into which the helicopters would have to fly, pointing out hazards and even determining which helicopter would be best suited to that environment. These are just a few of the benefits that the UAV’s could offer, but only if they are an integrated part of the plan. Having Falcon work side by side with FEMA BEFORE an incident gives the UAV pilots experience in what FEMA will be looking to know. It would also give FEMA experience with the capabilities of the UAV’s and the pilots.

Why is this so hard to see? The airspace had already been restricted yet Falcon chose to say “who gives a rip” and fly anyway, and everyone here wants to say that FEMA is evil and wants to watch people die? Falcon blatantly ignored a no-fly order and made no prior efforts to offer their services during the planning and training that takes place before an emergency; does this sound like a team-playing organization? Everyone wants to say that FEMA is operating for their own secret people-killing agenda, but nobody wants to recognize that Falcon was trying to operate “lone wolf” by their own personal agenda? It seems to me that if FEMA wanted people to die there’s much better ways to accomplish this besides committing huge amounts of time and effort to saving lives: like not showing up at all.

I hope that someone from Falcon reads this because I offer this challenge: If you are serious about wanting to offer your equipment, pilots, and services free of charge to public service, then begin coordinating with FEMA. Present them your offer. Have your execs, pilots, engineers, and other personnel undergo training in Incident Command and National Response Framework. Attend meetings, planning sessions, exercises, and drills. By doing this then FEMA will certainly be able to utilize your capabilities in future disasters, as a part of a coordinated team-effort to save lives.

And to the folks here who repeatedly keep saying that FEMA wants people to die, I say back it up with something concrete. Show us, in documented form, where FEMA says that they want, prefer, or need a body count. Otherwise such claims begin to border on defamation of character and slander.

I can assure you, however, that this isn’t the case. The entire purpose of FEMA is to help in times of disaster and to save lives. And just like paramedics, they can’t save every single person. Some will die despite their best efforts. But it is NOT because they wanted it to happen.

I think enough is enough, and enough groundless and factless bashing has occurred. The government isn’t some evil beast that kills its own people for its amusement. But if you think it is, then perhaps you’d prefer the friendlier climate in North Korea, Syria, China, the Middle East, or somewhere else like this that goes above and beyond to cherish the life of every single one of their dear citizens.

Like I said, enough is enough…

Steve Fitzgerald says:

An evacuee prospective

I never respond to these type of posts but this topic I’m very interested in. I’m from Pinewood Springs, CO as far as I can tell I was the last one evacuated from Pinewood Springs by a Blackhawk helicopter. I stayed until all but a couple of neighbors in Kiowa Island, (our bridge collapsed separating us from the rest of the community) evacuated.
I have been flying RCs for over 35 years, I have a pilots license (not current) I’ve worked with the FAA at Denver Center as a software engineer for 12 years. Recently I’ve worked for Honeybee Robotics as a Facility Manager and fabricator who is working on some UAV projects. I feel I have a very unique perspective on this matter.
When all these comments on the were being made on the 16th I was on my dirt bike trying scouting out an evacuation route for families with farm animals, chickens, goats, etc. Neighbors were told they were not allowed on the Chinooks. I found an old stagecoach route from 36 to Spring Gulch went down Spring Gulch and found the Apple Valley bridge still standing made it into Lyons and went to talk to the fire chief, we briefed each other I showed him the route I took and remember his last words to me ‘we’re stretched thin, (in Lyons) you guys are pretty much on your own up there’ that was all I needed to hear you might think that was disheartening but information is gold and now I knew the truth finally someones telling me the truth, I was delighted at that. Not that the Pinewood Springs fire department was lying to us but they were pretty much saying whatever they needed to get people to evacuate, they did a good job of this and they were right in doing so.
During that time the area looked like a war zone Chinooks and Blackhawks flying low level all over, it was an amazing site to see you never see many aircraft around here but to see so many flying at low level like this was something words can’t describe.
I have a huge interest in UAV flight and am working on my own projects in the area, if you have an some unquie information in the field please contact me. Anyway, imagine piloting during that day your looking out for the terrain other aircraft, paying attention to instruments, navigating and now you need to worried about a small UAV crashing through the windshield of the chopper your flying? The damage was already done, people needed to be evacuated, you try living without power, water, phone, internet, any communication of any kind. You look into your neighbors eyes and see their fear of not knowing what comes next. Then you’ll realize mapping can be done after all is safe. People were doing things they are not used to and the fear of someone getting hurt was very real, and you don’t want to get hurt when your not sure you can get medical response in a timely manner.
Sure you can say that maybe a UAV could’ve spotted some evacuee but at what cost. aircraft with people on board an aircraft are far more likely to do a much better job of spotting what needs to be done than a little camera on a UAV?sorry its the truth!
Don’t get me wrong I am a believer in UAVs and what they can do and the cost saving that can be achieved but when you get right down to it, do you want to be on that chopper as a passenger with who knows how many UAVs flying around at low level, think about that, I know I don’t.
All in all, FEMA did an outstanding job, its hard to me to say a government entity did a good job but I don’t think if I ran the outfit that I could have done the job they did, I’m proud of them. The National Guard, I’ve never really understood what the did, now I’m embarrased at myself for not serving in the National Guard, those guy are amazing, and dare I say it make me proud to be an American again.
In this day and age in America I am disgusted with our bought out politicians, scum of the earth in my opinion. But they will never be able to put down the American spirit of the common people, and the common people will always rally when disaster strikes?hopefully you’ll never have to experience a natural disaster or any other disaster, but if you do I’ll be there for you through FEMA and the National Guard the greatest concepts of government I’ve ever known.

Steve Fitzgerald

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