From monitoring wildfires to rescuing stranded motorists in flood waters, the unmanned aircraft system — or drone — has been a game changer for emergency response.
The number of public safety agencies with drones has more than doubled since the end of 2016, according to data collected by the Center for the Study of the Drone at New York’s Bard College.
Johnson County Emergency Management Director Jamie Moore said the first use of a public drone to save a life happened about four years ago in Johnson County.
Moore discussed how this new tool has greatly enhanced emergency response efforts during the Cleburne Lions Club meeting on Wednesday.
During the first rescue using a drone, Moore said there was heavy rainfall and flooding north of Venus that trapped a family inside their home.
“They had a creek about 100 yards away from their house and when they woke up that morning they were in a creek, literally, and had no way to get out,” he said. “Garret Bryl of Joshua and Chief Wayne Baker were assigned to that incident and they put a drone up in the air with a small line attached to it and flew it over to them.”
Bryl used the drone to deliver life vests and a safety line to the family, who attached it to a beam on their house. The other end was then hooked to the bumper of a fire truck and a rescue by raft was attempted.
That same morning, Bryl used the drone again to help locate two people trapped in a truck that was swept away by floodwaters near Joshua.
“We had people from all over the United States who had never seen anything like it,” Moore said. “They asked, ‘How did you do this? What equipment were you using?’ We started getting calls from all over the metroplex to help them out with our drones.”
Moore and Bryl were soon inundated with requests for help.
“We got calls for the Canton tornadoes,” Moore said. “We got a call to go up to Flower Mound for the missing child. We got calls from all over to bring our drones.”
From that, Moore and others developed a regional UAS response team of drone pilots.
“We brought other agencies on and helped them get into a training class that was developed by Garret and Chief Baker, to train pilots on how we use this technology,” he said. “Once we developed this regional team we got a call from the governor’s office and asked if we could go down to Houston during Hurricane Harvey.”
The drone manufacturer — DJI — by that time had caught on and wanted to meet with Moore.
“They came here to Johnson County and asked if we could have any drone that we wanted, what do we want?” he said. “We said we wanted a drone that could fly over 20 minutes, we want one that is fully waterproof and one we can put multiple cameras on. We wanted the ability to fly and if there is a wall in front of it, it will stop and not run into it.”
About four months later, DJI developed the M210, which offers longer flight durations, larger payloads and sophisticated maneuverability.
“This was the very first commercial drone developed by DJI,” Moore said. “And they developed it on the specs that we told them we needed. We have people now all over the United States following our lead and using this drone to save people’s lives with it.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Geological Survey was able to guide first responders via drone to rescue a Hawaiian man whose home was on the verge of being engulfed by lava from the Kilauea volcano.
“I wanted people to see that there are tools that they can use; they had no idea,” Moore said. “All they were hearing were these negative things like people using them to peep in a window. Even the fire departments had no idea the things we were doing with these drones.”