Getting Our UAS Priorities Straight

By Patrick C. Miller | February 04, 2016

If you think Amazon is dismayed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), spend a few minutes talking to Gene Robinson, a UAS pilot and president of RPFlight Systems Inc. in Wimberly, Texas.

While Amazon plans to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to get the stuff it sells to its customers faster, Robinson has been using UAS for years to help find missing people and assist first responders during disasters and emergencies.

Every time Amazon says something about its plans—often to complain to Congress about FAA foot dragging—it makes national news. In contrast, you’ve probably heard little or nothing about the 12-year battle Robinson has been fighting to give law enforcement, firefighters, search and rescue teams and other emergency personnel the ability to deploy UAS when people are missing or lives are at stake.

This is clearly one of the best and most promising applications of UAS technology, but Robinson said implementing regulations to enable UAS use for this purpose has been an exercise in frustration.

I first became acquainted with Robinson in the fall of 2014 when I wrote a story for UAS Magazine on the effort to find Christina Morris, a woman missing in Plano, Texas. (There are potential new developments on that story.) Under an FAA-issued emergency COA, Robinson led a UAS team that helped search for Morris shortly after she went missing.

I contacted Robinson again after he commented on my most recent story about using UAS during disasters and emergencies. He agreed with Michael Nolan, chief paramedic for the Renfrew County Paramedic Services in Ontario, Canada, who was quoted in the article as saying that UAS being used for emergencies and disaster response should be regulated in a category separate from hobbyists and commercial users.

To be fair, the FAA does have a category for aircraft used for public operations by government agencies. The FAA can and does issue emergency COAs to qualified agencies requesting the use of UAS during disasters and emergencies. However, Robinson argues that this system can be cumbersome and isn’t responsive enough when lives are at stake and minutes matter. He said this is especially true after business hours, on weekends and holidays.

“Most of these organizations—the fire departments, the police departments and the search and rescue units that do formal searches—have procedures and protocols that they work with now,” he said. “For the longest time I have said that anyone who needs to be involved in a search needs to be certified in NIMS—National Incident Management System—protocols. That automatically puts them into a structure where they have to be accountable. It’s one of the things that’s being ignored.”

In addition, Robinson noted that government entities on the local and state levels that want to integrate UAS into their emergency services take the time and make the effort to establish procedures and protocols to meet the liability limits in the communities in which they operate.

“They’re just as concerned about safety as the FAA,” he said. “They are professionals, and they understand that sometimes you have to drive over the speed limit get to the scene of an incident. You may have to use lights and sirens to get through a red light; they’re used to doing that.”

When I spoke to Nolan, he made a similar point, noting that because he’s a paramedic, he can turn on the lights and siren of a $100,000 rescue vehicle and legally drive at high speed down the wrong side of the highway—as long as it’s in the public interest and it’s done as safely as possible.  He believes the same principle should apply to UAS during emergencies.

“One of the things we’ve always said is that in exigent circumstances, sometimes the rules need to change because of consideration for life and limb,” Robinson explained. “That’s what we’ve been proposing for the last 12 years.”

Robinson, who nearly four years ago wrote a book titled “First to Deploy—Unmanned Aircraft for SAR & Law Enforcement,” has more recently co-authored a white paper with Coitt Kessler, program manager for the Austin (Texas) Fire Department Robotic Emergency Deployment (RED) Team. It discusses coordination issues, communications problems and the use of manned and unmanned aircraft during the May 23, 2015, flooding in the Wimberly area that claimed 12 lives.

It’s an eye-opening and informative read about what worked well and what needs more work for UAS deployment and use during a natural disaster. Robinson and Kessler are to be commended for providing guidance organizations can follow to maximize the effectiveness of UAS when time is of the essence.

The paper’s conclusion states: “It will not be long before first responders wonder how they ever operated without the use of unmanned aerial systems.”

Asked how long it will be before this day arrives, Robinson responded, “If we get some special consideration for first responders, then it could happen quite quickly.”

Let’s hope the legislators and regulators who make such decisions understand that enabling first responders to employ UAS is a life and death matter. It must be a priority.