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Disaster Brings Home UAS Lifesaving Potential

The ability of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to provide assistance during disasters was dramatically demonstrated this week as a result of the earthquake that rocked Nepal, creating massive destruction and claiming thousands of lives.
By Patrick C. Miller | April 30, 2015

The ability of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to provide assistance during disasters was dramatically demonstrated this week as a result of the earthquake that rocked Nepal, creating massive destruction and claiming thousands of lives.

Just this morning, I watched a news report from a major network in which a radio operator in the region described how he’s using his solar-powered ham radio to provide much-needed communication to the rest of the world.

What apparently sailed right over the interviewer’s head was the mention of UAS being used to relay the signals between the radio operator and the rescuers coordinating search efforts and other aid needed for the Nepalese. While I had read about and talked to others regarding UAS being used for this purpose, it was the first time I’d heard of it actually being employed during a disaster.

But I contrasted that information with what software developer Bill Piedra told me about his experience with Project Ryptide. He and a group of high school students created a device that attaches to a DJI Phantom drone, enabling it to drop a self-inflating life preserver to a swimmer in distress.

It’s not at all difficult to see the potential of this device when paired with UAS to save people from drowning, including those who fall through thin ice. As Piedra explained, there’s a critical three-minute period in which getting aid to swimmers in distress often determines the difference between life and death.

However, Piedra also noted that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) proposed regulations for small UAS don’t allow any object to be jettisoned from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). While I’m certain the FAA has good reason for discouraging people from turning their drones into remote-controlled bombers, the regulation prevents UAVs equipped with the Ryptide device from doing what they’re designed to do: save lives.

The good news is that Piedra and the computer science students at King Low Heywood Thomas High School in Stamford, Connecticut, made good use of the public comment period on the proposed regulations.

“We submitted comments saying that the FAA should consider the fact that there are useful reasons for objects to be jettisoned from a drone,” he said. “Drones have a potentially life-saving ability for first responders.”

To help make sure the FAA gets the message, Piedra worked with well-known UAS attorneys Brendan Schulman, head of the UAS practice group at the Kramer Levin law firm, and Peter Sachs, author of the Drone Law Journal, who reviewed the comments and provided advice.

Since I began covering the UAS industry, the use of UAVs to search for missing people, locate disaster victims, provide communication, information and other assistance during disasters, and assist first responders during the first critical minutes of an accident or catastrophe has struck me as one of the best possible uses for the technology. Let’s hope that in the comments the FAA receives, that message comes through loud and clear. The agency must find a way to expedite the implementation of regulations that allow UAS to help save lives.