Wary of making the same mistakes that left large swaths of Puerto Rico without electricity for months in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria (as utilities struggled to gain access to hard-to-reach locales due to the storm's damage to the roads), local utilities covering parts of the southeastern coastline have enlisted armies of drone-pilot mercenaries to identify, document and even repair some of the damage caused by Hurricane (now Tropical Storm) Florence.
As Bloomberg reports, a veritable "drone army" involving at least 53 drone teams has been recruited to help with damage assessment. And while those numbers might pale in comparison to the 40,000 utility workers (not to mention the military personnel) who have been deployed in anticipation of the storm response, drones offer a crucial alternative when repairs must be made in difficult-to-reach areas.
Drones have proven useful before. Last year, IBM worked with one local utility to use drones to make needed repairs to damaged utility substations during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Take Hurricane Harvey last year: When it flooded Houston, CenterPoint Energy Inc. used drones to assess a substation, determined it was seriously damaged and then quickly built a back-up in a church parking lot, said Chris Behme, an energy and utilities partner at IBM.
IBM worked with the Texas utility during recovery efforts and expects drones to do similar work in the wake of Florence, he said. They can also be used to check hospital generators or alert residents if the local hardware store is open to get supplies, Behme said via telephone.
Drone pilots working on officially sanctioned business will receive an exception to the FAA's stringent regulations. However, drones piloted by private individuals can sometimes impede repair-and-rescue efforts. The FAA has threatened hobbyists and other amateurs with "significant fines" if they try to interfere with the recovery effort.
While utility drones may be pivotal, there’s a concern those owned by other companies or curious individuals could interfere with rescue and recovery. In a news conference Friday, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told enthusiasts to keep their craft on the ground.
"We don’t want people to fly these drones and put people’s lives and properties at risk," he said.
It’s unclear how many drones are in the southeast right now, said EEI’s Reil. To keep them from hindering efforts by government and utilities, the Federal Aviation Administration is limiting personal drone flights in the disaster area.
Of course, utilities aren't the only companies employing drones. Insurance companies have also enlisted freelance drone pilots to help document storm damage to ensure that claims are swiftly paid. They're also being used to verify claims so unscrupulous policyholders don't try to take advantage of the post-storm chaos to bilk their insurers, according to Wired. Getting the all-important "after" photos can be a challenge when the FAA bans aircraft from flying during the aftermath of the storm. But by working with satellite operators, pilots can figure out the "optimal time" to acquire the precious post-storm data.
The assembled drone pilots, though, won't wait for commercial aviation to restart before they take off. Insurance companies are the biggest clients for their services, so they can figure out where to send resources, and in some cases, to settle claims within hours. Utility companies employ drone pilots to spot downed power lines. Infrastructure engineers can see flooded roads. And they can do it all long before it's possible or safe to reach these areas on the ground.
At the Airbus Aerial headquarters in Atlanta, Jesse Kallman, president of the imaging company, has taken over a conference room, with a team of 10. Together they’re putting well-prepared plans into action, to combine data from Airbus’ satellites, fixed-wing aircraft, and drones. Insurance companies are sending over databases of where their policyholders are concentrated. Utilities are spelling out where they have vulnerable infrastructure like long power lines. The company is also pulling together pre-event data: "before" pictures to contrast with the "after."
Getting those "after" images is the challenge. No aircraft can fly in the storm itself, and even when it passes, they have to get into place to start work. "We work with the satellite team to try to understand the optimal times to acquire data, and work through all the types of data needed," Kallman says. A detailed understanding of the path of the storm can give them a head start.
Insurers including Travelers Cos. and United Services Automobile Association say they’ll also use the technology to inspect properties and collect evidence for claims after the storm has passed. Travelers has almost 600 trained drone pilots, said Jim Wucherpfennig, the company’s vice-president for property claims.
Scientists responsible for tracking the storm have used submersible drones to glean as much data as possible from Florence to help meteorologists forecast its trajectory and strength. The drones transfer this data to satellites that aid in the collection and processing.
WHEN HURRICANE FLORENCE makes landfall on the North Carolina coastline this week, Catherine Edwards will be hoping the super-storm doesn’t veer toward her home in Savannah, Georgia. But even if Florence maintains a safe distance, Edwards will still have an intimate view of the weather: she's tracking the hurricane's path with a remote-controlled underwater ocean glider.
Edwards, an assistant professor of marine sciences at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, is one of dozens of marine scientists who are gathering data about hurricanes with a new tool: a six-foot long underwater drone, known as a Slocum glider, which carries sensors to measure ocean heat, salinity, and density.
Normally, these torpedo-like gliders travel up and down the East Coast and Caribbean mapping the ocean currents that influence short-term weather, long-term climate change, and marine life. Now, these gliders are part of the scientific armada probing Hurricane Florence for data in an effort to help forecasters understand its trajectory and strength. That armada includes at least a dozen Earth-orbiting satellites, hurricane hunter aircraft, and moored ocean buoys.
And with several named storms gathering strength across the planet, we imagine these amateur pilots will be in for a busy season...