On the spot: Textron, Aeryon assess Oklahoma tornado damage

By Patrick C. Miller | May 24, 2017

A demonstration of how unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology can assist during disasters became all too real on May 16 when a tornado struck Elk City, Oklahoma.

As part of a study on how drones can benefit emergency management operations, a team from Textron Systems Unmanned Systems and drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs was in Oklahoma May 15 to meet with representatives of the state’s Department of Emergency Management and work with a group of students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Knowing that a system forecast to produce severe weather in western Oklahoma was due the next day, the four-person Textron-Aeryon team led by Charlie Johnson—Textron Systems director of civil and commercial sales—deployed to Elk City. They were three miles away from an EF2 tornado that struck the town, leaving one person dead and causing extensive damage to homes and business.

In contact with the drone team from the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) 120 miles away in Oklahoma City, Zach Stanford—special operations officer with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management—said, “We went from telling them they were perfectly positioned to telling them they might need to seek cover.”

Suddenly the drone demonstration became a case study on the value of UAS in helping to coordinate a disaster response.

“Within 10 minutes of impact, we had met the county emergency manager on site at the fire station, which is where firefighters and first responders were assembling,” Johnson said.

Twenty minutes after the tornado struck, the team launched an Aeryon SkyRanger quadcopter and was streaming live video to the state EOC and the National Weather Service office in Norman, Oklahoma. The video feed was streamed in real time through AeryonLive, which provides a secure bonded cellular network connection.

“Before the news helicopters arrived, before the incident command was set up, before first responders were truly in place and completely organized, we were already flying and distributing data to help with situational awareness and response coordination,” Johnson said.

Stanford noted that although some news media outlets in Oklahoma deploy helicopters to monitor severe weather and the state has many storm chasers on the ground to track tornadoes, the EOC has never had the ability to direct what it sees.

“If we need to see more of a certain house, we can tell them to zoom in on it or we could ask them to fly over a certain area,” he said “The interaction was really something unique.”

Stanford explained that early damage assessments are critical to determining how much and what type of assistance is needed at a disaster scene. In addition, they can show which roads are blocked by trees and power lines, enabling first responders to reach the scene more quickly.

Dennis Racine, Textron Systems senior director of sales and marketing of civil and commercial products, said the experience provided a good example of how UAS can help states manage emergencies and natural disasters.

“We want to be able to develop the relationship with the emergency responders and work with them to further understand and further refine what they’re looking for,” he said. “We have experience with images and video. We can really show what we’ve done and what we can do. It’s a good opportunity to display and engage UAV technology.”