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.