16:01 PM

Neb. Wing Adds sUAS Imagery to Flood Damage Assessment Mission

Paul South
Contributing Writer

In March, the Platte River swelled to unprecedented levels in Nebraska, thanks to heavy rains and breached levees. Houses disappeared beneath the rising waters; property was washed away.

The angry floodwaters carved new channels for the Platte in this spring of the river’s discontent.

Like so many others in the past, the flooding event resulted in a fleet of Civil Air Patrol planes descending on the area to provide aerial imagery, search and rescue and other aid in the air and on the ground.

But for the first time, CAP’s response involved drone aircraft known as small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) — some as small as a basketball — joined CAP’s response, providing help for flood-ravaged Fremont in eastern Nebraska and its neighbors to the north and south, some 45 minutes from Omaha. The drones were dispatched at the request of Nebraska Emergency Management.

Capt. Jason Ferguson of the Omaha Composite Squadron flew the sUAS, as well as planes gathering images for state and local officials. He also witnessed the devastation on the ground.

“Our headquarters was completely wiped out,” Ferguson said. “Five or 6 feet of water in the building. There were houses, you couldn’t even see ‘em. They were completely underwater.”

Those images, Worcester said, can be in the hands of emergency management officials within 90 minutes.

The new technology will eventually affect another fundamental CAP mission — search and rescue. Thermal imagery systems are now being field tested that, when overlaid on a high-resolution camera, can provide 4K high-resolution thermal images.

“So you can get the body heat of a person, or we can take that high-resolution image, bring it back and then crowdsource it frame by frame in that ultra-high-definition environment, say with 10 cadets on 10 laptops, and say, ‘Find me this person, or this piece of evidence,’ and you’d be amazed at how quickly they can find it,” Worcester said.

As the number of natural disasters spikes, the budget demands on federal, state and local agencies also rise. The sUAS’s ability to fly at lower altitudes on days that might ground planes means fewer lost mission days and lower costs — about $25 an hour. Those costs can soar into the hundreds of dollars for planes, even thousands for military aircraft. Not to mention the increased safety of drones.

Ferguson testified to the impact of the tandem work of sUAS and planes.

“It supports that photography mission that CAP has become known for and has become the priority, at least in this area. It extends the capability. It really takes it and extends our capabilities,” Worcester said.

The potential for the sUAS program, based on this first mission, appears boundless. While most of the heavy lifting in the Platte flooding has been done by traditional planes, which have the benefit of longer flight duration, there’s a growing role for sUAS in future disaster relief missions.

“I think it will have a huge impact,” said Col. Regena Aye, commander of CAP’s North Central Region, which includes the Nebraska Wing.

“A lot of personnel have been doing training to bring various wings on board,” she said. “Most of our efforts in this flood though have been the traditional aircraft sorties taking photos and uploading those.”

Worcester described the unmanned systems this way: “It’s just another tool in the toolbox for that local, state or federal emergency manager to get information and information is power. That’s what we’re here to help with.”

Aye believes the technology, with its new and enhanced capabilities, will gain more acceptance in the years ahead.

Ferguson agreed.

“I think it’s a game-changer for CAP, because we are on the cutting edge of the future of aviation.”

Now, thanks to sUAS, CAP can provide imagery that depicts not only the length and width of flooding, levee and debris but also the depth. And it can provide more detailed photos, gathering images from lower altitudes — 100 to 400 feet — than aircrews in planes can. That means more detailed information for emergency management teams. For example, it can give an emergency manager a clear picture of how many dump trucks will be needed to clear a debris field.

“That’s where the sUAS platform really hits the sweet spot, because you can fly 100 feet above the ground up to 400, typically, and shoot really high-resolution videos and photography. They wanted to get the granularity of those levee areas,” Ferguson said.

Accuracy and detail are at the heart of the new technology. The small UAS was created through a joint effort of CAP, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of the May 2013 EF-5 tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 and leaving 212 injured.

“The primary product that we’re providing is high-resolution, orthomosaic georeferenced imagery. That’s a big term for high-end maps that can be done in two- or three-dimensional, so we can create these in 3D that are geo-rectified to a map of a known location,” said Austin Worcester, senior sUAS program manager at CAP National Headquarters.

Normally, the margin of error on the maps is a single meter. But new technology can dramatically reduce that.

“It allows an emergency manager to look at an aerial ‘before’ image on Google Earth or other GIS platform, and then take that ‘after’ photo and put it in the exact same spot,” Worcester said. “Some of our higher-end equipment can take that margin of error down from a meter to about a quarter of a centimeter, roughly the size of a dime.”