Tornado damage assessed under FAA’s Part 107 regulations

By Patrick C. Miller | September 01, 2016

Glen Hultin, a farmer near Hillsboro, North Dakota, had no idea how a convergence of events would play a role in one of the first applications of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rollout of Part 107—rules for the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

On Saturday, Hultin and his wife Barb were visiting their daughter 380 miles to the west in Watford City, North Dakota, when they received a phone call that evening saying a tornado had struck their farm north of Hillsboro.

“We were a little worked up and shocked,” Hultin said. “So we came home that night. We got home Sunday at 2 in the morning and saw it for the first time.”

An EF-3 twister had demolished most of a machine shop and totally destroyed their house. Fortunately, the family dog was the only one home at the time and survived unscathed.

On Monday, Matt Dunlevy, CEO of SkySkopes—a UAS service provider operating out of Grand Forks, North Dakota—had a full slate of demonstrations planned to coincide with the first day of operations under Part 107, but tornado damage assessment wasn’t on the list. He and members of the SkySkopes team had been on the road since 5 a.m. to conduct transmission line and railway inspections, as well as road mapping.

Near Mapleton, North Dakota, the first SkySkopes’ mission of the day was flying the Sharper A-6 UAS to inspect an Xcel Energy 345-kilovolt transmission line. The aircraft is owned by Sharper Shape, a company from Finland working with the Edison Electric Institute to demonstrate and develop commercial UAS operations for U.S. electric companies.

“The A-6 carries the most advanced, commercially available payload on the market,” according to Dunlevy. “It was the first time it flew in American airspace because of Part 107 rules.”

Dunlevy added storm damage assessment to his list of projects after he got word that a farm north of Hillsboro had been struck by a tornado. When the SkySkopes team drove into the Hultin’s farmyard early Monday afternoon, they had no idea what kind of reception they’d get.

Dunlevy explained to Hultin that his company wanted to use a drone to inspect the tornado damage and would provide all the data collected to him at no charge. Hultin was pleased with the offer of help.

“My insurance company that morning told me to take lots of pictures. What better way can you do it than from overhead?” he asked. “It’s amazing. It’s going to be fun to see how this all works out.”

Hultin was surprised to learn that the drone damage assessment of his farm was part of UAS history as one of the first commercial operations conducted under the FAA’s small UAS rules.

“No matter what bad happens, there’s some good that comes out of it all,” he noted.

By Tuesday, SkySkopes had provided Hultin with all the data its DJI Inspire had collected—high-resolution photos and video showing the damage from a perspective that only a drone can provide.

“It was an honor to do this for the Hultins on a pro bono basis because at the end of the day, we’re all North Dakotans,” Dunlevy said. “That’s going to be good for their insurance.”

To emphasize the importance of the new small UAS rules, during a Monday morning news conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. Transportation Secretary Antony Foxx noted that “drones are charting a path that will continue to revolutionize our airspace.”

Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Systems International (AUVSI), added: “The United States has been a pioneer in aviation since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies more than 100 years ago. Today we’ve reached another significant milestone. With the small UAS rule now in effect, the commercial drone industry is cleared for takeoff.”

During the event, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency estimates that 600,000 UAS will be in use commercially during the first year of Part 107’s implementation. He also said that the FAA had already granted 76 waivers under the small UAS rule—72 for nighttime operations.

Huerta said the waiver process demonstrates the FAA’s willingness to be flexible while striking a balance between safety and innovation. Under the agency’s Project Pathfinder UAS research program, CNN received a waiver for flying over people during news gathering and the BNSF Railway received a waiver for beyond-line-of-sight operations for track inspections.


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