A fully loaded drone can cost upwards of $2,000 (plus camera equipment), will stabilize itself in winds up to 30 mph, and requires a special pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly for commercial use. It also sounds like a swarm of particularly angry bees when taking off.
Standing outside the Yanity gym last Thursday, Dec. 7, Sean McEvoy showed The Press how quickly drones can be deployed to survey areas otherwise inaccessible to people on foot. As the deputy planning chief for the Office of Emergency Management, McEvoy thinks it’s a capability that will benefit the town’s disaster response.
The program would be run through the department’s volunteer Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a civilian team that coordinates relief efforts with the department after major emergencies.
The team is looking for about 10 operators to join the program. Volunteers will undergo training to bring the program up to FAA standards, as well as training that all CERT members go through to learn how to coordinate disaster response efforts.
McEvoy said he was open to high school students joining the program, with the emphasis on learning emergency management procedures.
“A major incident in Ridgefield typically is a major storm, and typically involves trees, wires, roads — that kind of thing,” said Dick Aarons, in an interview with The Press shortly before the flight. Aarons serves as director of the Office of Emergency Management for the town, and is working closely with McEvoy to get the drone program off the ground.
The pair hope to get the department’s fledgling drone program up and running sometime after the holidays.
Funding would be determined once volunteers are in place. Aarons suggested there may be state grants that would help get the new pilots in the air.
Aarons, who is also a licensed drone operator, said he hopes the program will help Eversource improve its response time for restoring downed power lines.
During major storms with many downed wires, Eversource often sends a liaison to help coordinate removing and restoring downed wires, Aarons explained. Drones would give the town one more stream of data to relay to the Eversource teams.
“We usually have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in town,” Aarons said. But a drone would allow CERT to get a look at areas blocked off by downed wires, which town responders don’t have the ability to remove.
Drones would enable CERT to look beyond blocked roads and downed wires to get an overall picture of a storm’s damage, which would give Eversource a heads-up in determining how many crews to send, and how long the recovery would take, Aarons said.
With a flick of his thumb, McEvoy sent the drone whining higher into the clear, blue sky. Watching the view of the town spread out below from a video feed beamed down from the drone, he swiveled the drone’s camera around the horizon with a joystick on the device’s remote control.
“Pedestrian, 20 feet,” Aarons called out. In the field, emergency drone pilots work in pairs, McEvoy explained, with one person operating the aircraft from a remote control and the other looking out for pedestrians and other obstacles.
A big part of the spotter’s job is shooing away onlookers, who could distract the pilot, McEvoy said, as well as making sure the operator doesn’t stumble into a hole or tree while staring at the drone’s video feed.
McEvoy said he came up with the idea of a drone program after a group of drone pilots he knew drove an RV to Texas and Florida, with the intention of coordinating a search-and-rescue operation using drones.
The group quickly realized, however, that their drones were far more useful for damage assessment tools than search and rescue. While drones, McEvoy said, “can clear an acre, a helicopter can clear square miles using infrared, much better cameras — they can drop things, they can pick people up, they can do things that drones can’t do.”
Where drones hold their own against manned aircraft, McEvoy said, is their ability to quickly map an area and “get that information to a command center, and also to insurance companies, and everything else.”
“We just had that storm that knocked out four different areas of town,” McEvoy said. “Roads close, we can’t see what’s beyond that — why don’t we map that 10 acres … and get a big view of the damage?”
To map a large area quickly, McEvoy uses a computer program that digitally stitches individual images together into one big picture.
“These drones can only fly at 400 feet,” he said, “but when I do Ballard Park, for instance, it literally looks like I took one picture from 2,500 feet up.”
Some of the newer drones can also automatically fly a predetermined route using autopilot, he said. A drone pilot can simply trace a shape over a selected area on an iPad and the drone will follow the flight path on its own.
Eye in the sky
As for privacy concerns, Aarons and McEvoy both said residents had little to worry about.
“Is it gonna spy on me?” Aarons said he’d often been asked. “No,” he said.
“It’s actually one of the worst tools ever for spying, because the zoom lens is OK — right now I’ve got 7X, you can get 30X — but you can get far better with a telephoto camera from the ground,” said McEvoy.
“The message I would want to get across is that we’re doing this entirely within the FAA regulations,” said Aarons. “The folks that we’re looking to train, we’re hoping that they have the time and enthusiasm and energy to give the program.”
“And understand that this is not a flying club,” he said. “It’s an emergency management asset.”
To get involved, contact Sean McEvoy at: firstname.lastname@example.org