UAVs in Disaster Response

Much of the discourse surrounding Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has been centered on their function in the military, but their public safety applications have been receiving attention recently as well. So far they have been used to help in such instances as the Yosemite wildfires and Colorado floods. Emergency responders have used UAVs instead of traditional aircraft in disaster recovery for several reasons, including their lower cost, reduced need for refueling, and their ability to stream night-vision or infrared footage to people in safer positions on the ground. UAVs also avoid operator fatigue, and can sustain flight for much longer periods of time.  The conception most people have of UAVs seems to have made it unreasonably difficult to develop policy allowing for their use in disasters. Hopefully their positive applications will be taken into account and reflected in policy.

In the case of the Yosemite fire, the UAV hovered over the burn area in 22-hour periods (Danigelis). All of this aided in making “crucial decisions about resource allocation quickly” (Danigelis). As for the flooding in Colorado, UAVs were used because it was prohibitively difficult to fly traditional aircraft in the weather. In the comparatively short time of a few hours, UAVs helped relief agencies by returning a high resolution map of the area (Ackerman). CNN’s Heather Kelly discusses how UAVs may be used in disaster response situations as well, noting that there is equipment that allows UAVs to “hear gunshots, detect chemical levels, track RFID tags, and measure radiation” (Kelly). Another far more basic benefit to using UAVs is that they can be much quieter while picking up audio with microphones that would normally be very difficult to hear, as opposed to helicopters, which can drown out the sounds of survivors and stir up debris (Kelly).

While UAVs have the capacity to greatly expand our abilities in responding to disasters, there are issues with the regulations and policies that restrict their usefulness. For instance, in the case of Falcon UAV which attempted to assist in Colorado, there was a miscommunication that resulted in Falcon receiving a cease and desist order. According to Evan Ackerman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “there was a serious breakdown in communication somewhere along the line, although it’s not entirely clear whether it was between FEMA and Boulder EOC or Boulder EOC and Falcon” (Ackerman). He hopes the situation will spur the development of policy regarding the use of UAVs in emergencies.

Heather Kelly also addresses the potential difficulty of incorporating UAVs into public safety operations. She says that while there are proponents of UAV use in these circumstances, “they still face lengthy regulatory hurdles, privacy concerns, and a public image problem inherited from their armed, military cousins” (Kelly). One such issue is that the level of restriction the Federal Aviation Administration applies to who can operate UAVs and how they can be flown (Kelly).The FAA has a deadline of 2015 imposed by Congress to create regulation for UAVs in U.S airspace to include “safety regulations, how pilots need to be trained, how an aircraft is certified, and the process for notifying local air-traffic controllers” (Kelly). Currently, waivers are needed to operate a UAV above 400 ft, but approval takes anywhere from two months to a year and are quite difficult to get.

Professor Nick Jennings, a chief scientific advisor to the government, believes UAVs would be an excellent resource in disasters. Douglas Shaw reports that his system is in testing for next year which will allow UAVs to assist emergency services as autonomously as possible (Shaw). By minimal supervisions, Jennings means “allowing UAVs to fly as squadrons, improvising their own flight paths as a unit in response to new information, without human intervention” (Shaw). In the tests mentioned, the UAVs are given tasks and flown as a unit to test the algorithms directing the collective movement of the UAVs for the purpose of collecting and distributing information requests from humans on the ground (Shaw). Hopefully these developments lead to the increased use of UAVs in disaster response, and policy can be adjusted to allow their use in emergency situations.


Kelly, Heather. “UAVs: The Future of Disaster Response.” Cable News Network, 3 May 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Ackerman, Evan. “[UPDATED] UAV Provides Colorado Flooding Assistance Until FEMA Freaks Out.” Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Shaw, Dougal. “Disaster UAVs: How Robot Teams Can Help in a Crisis.” BBC, 23 July 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Danigelis, Alyssa. “Predator UAV Joins Yosemite Wildfire Fight.” Discovery Channel, 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.