Textron Systems UAS team deploys multicast feed during Harvey

By Patrick C. Miller | September 21, 2017

Between tornadoes and hurricanes this year, Textron Systems Unmanned Systems has been gaining experience in deploying unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into disaster zones.

Most recently, the company deployed a UAS team equipped with the Aeryon SkyRanger drone to assist first responders in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 25. The slow-moving storm brought catastrophic, record flooding to southeast Texas and the Houston area.

Prior to Harvey making landfall, Textron identified pilots for manned and unmanned aircraft and prepositioned them to provide disaster response. Charlie Johnson, Textron Systems director of civil and commercial, led the company’s UAS team supporting a group of first responders from Tennessee.  

“We were on loan to the state of Texas so that we could operate unmanned systems and provide real-time data and steam full-motion video,” she said. “The multicast was viewable in four states simultaneously. Decision makers could adequately align their resources to better support the disaster response efforts.”

Dennis Racine, senior director of civil and commercial for Textron Systems, said the UAS team helped first responders know which routes were available in and out of Houston and the surrounding area.

“We did a lot of work south of Houston proper and were able to identify flooded out, damaged areas—utilities, railways; it was just a mass of destruction,” he said. “That imagery was supplied to the appropriate people and they were able to make decisions about what their crews needed to be ready to deal with when going into those areas.”

Deploying the SkyRanger drone enabled the team to cross physical barriers and collect data to verify which areas were flooded and which had been cleared of people in need of rescue.

“This allowed first responders to more effectively clear a zone, which freed up more resources to more quickly and safely respond to the needs of the citizens,” Johnson said. “We also kept the responders out of water that posed a hazard to them.”

Johnson said the Textron Systems UAS team has learned the importance of being flexible when responding to disasters such as Hurricane Harvey because situations change rapidly and logistics can be a problem.

“You have to be agile; you really have to be malleable to be supportive in that environment in both how you operate and what you’re operating with because you just have to be prepared for the unexpected.,” she said. “You’ve got to have a backup for the backup.”

One aspect of the operation that went smoothly was the coordination of UAS flights with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to Racine.

“Harris County around the Houston airport was in restricted airspace,” he explained. “However, with proper planning and proper paperwork, we were able to get permission to fly in the TFR (temporary flight restrictions). It was well coordinated. Under the circumstances, the emergency responders and the FAA were able to work together.”

Johnson noted that initially, first responders needed real-time, full-motion UAS video for situational awareness and damage assessment, but since then, there’s been a dramatic transition to other types of aerial data.

“In the days that followed, there’s a need for precision mapping and surveying capability to find the economic impact of what just happened,” she said.

The recovery period will require different types of aircraft with longer endurance and different payloads to capture a broader range of data, Racine said.

“We had customers looking for specific data within a one-mile, two-mile and five-mile radius around certain locations,” he said.

As Racine explained, they’re looking for information on the routes surrounding their businesses to determine how long it will take to get back in operation, as well as assessments of damage to their businesses.

“It’s different pieces and you need, different equipment and different capabilities to provide different types of and different levels of information as these disasters go through their stages,” he concluded.