Updated: Jun 3, 2019
HUNTSVILLE, May 06, 2019 -- GEOHuntsville’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Working Group in Alabama recently provided support to the Morgan County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and other local public safety agencies in a collaborative effort on May 1st to demonstrate the effective use of UAS technologies to better assist public safety officials in protecting the citizenry during major emergencies. In a realistic showing of tight intercommunity support and resiliency, seven well-trained and equipped public safety UAS teams from five jurisdictions actively participated in the event. Tasked to observe the simulated incident region, each team executed a different mission type over the fictitiously impacted / threatened areas and monitored ongoing activities in order to provide enhanced situational awareness to decision makers in various remote locations.
The team used UAS and other emerging technologies to test the following capabilities, all of which could serve a useful purpose for a variety of real-world emergency scenarios:
● Conduct simultaneous deployment and UAS launch/land operations from fixed land sites and moving watercraft
● Live-stream aerial video to offsite emergency managers
● Instantly display status and location of UAS operators and assets for incident command staff using real-time mapping applications
● Provide continuous monitoring of critical areas within simulated evacuation zones (e.g., traffic choke points) and identify various traffic hazards and/or rerouting needs
● Demonstrate additional security support through “on-call” UAS operations and rapid reassignment of deployed UAS teams
● Coordinate resources across multiple jurisdictions while maintaining safety and awareness of all emergency response activities, on the ground and in the air
● Test interagency communications with individual agency-owned assets
● Test concept of simultaneous, coordinated operations by multiple agencies in the same airspace with independent airspace access authorization
● Distribute and share data among many different partners using a common application
The exercise would not have been possible without the high level support from local public safety leaders and elected officials, along with the in-depth involvement of experts in the related fields of UAS program development, training, and research-to-operations. Among those partners in the public safety realm are Director Eddie Hicks and his staff at the Morgan County EMA, and Sgt. Kelly Roberts of the Hartselle Police Department. Both are active, supportive members in the GEOHuntsville UAS Working Group, with Sgt. Roberts helping to spearhead the above-referenced collaborative exercise. “It’s been fascinating to be a part of this group these past couple of years,'' said Sgt. Roberts, “really diving in to work with
other like-minded folks to help move the ball forward in using drones to help us do our jobs better and to protect the communities that we all care for so much.” Just next door and representing a welcome new addition to the group is Chief Nathaniel Allen and his team from the Decatur Police Department. Also, a short distance up the road, other interagency partners who participated in the Morgan County exercise include, Officer Chris Hluzek and others from the Huntsville Police Department, and Chief Ed Ralston of the Arab Police Department. During real-life disaster events, it is quite common for public agencies to share personnel and other resources to help out neighboring communities, so this exercise posed no exception.
Industry partners also represent a vitally important component of not only this exercise team, but also the GEOHuntsville UAS Working Group, at large. Ahead of this event, a group of highly qualified UAS pilots and other flight operations support personnel from “enrGies” of Huntsville worked in close coordination with local public agencies to provide training, flight operations, and planning support to execute a list of objectives. “Avion Solutions” of Huntsville was also onboard to provide UAS teaming and equipment needed to assist with the mission. These companies, and others like it in the UAS Working Group, realize the value in investing their time and resources into such a worthwhile endeavor, helping to make our communities stronger, safer, and more resilient by supporting our emergency managers and first responders. Because they have been involved in operations like these on a regular basis for so long, these subject matter experts bring a wealth of knowledge into the group, which they openly share with the public agency partners and other members. Mr. Phil Owens, Director of UAS Operations at enrGies, served as the UAS manager to oversee all UAS operations—conducted under FAA Part 107—within the Emergency Operations Center during the simulated emergency response activity on May 1st. Demonstrating true Incident Command structure for emergency situations, he worked under and coordinated with Director Hicks at the Morgan County EMA to manage UAS resources and obtain crucial information using this technology in areas where it was needed the most. Steve Pierce, President of enrGies, Huntsville stated “Right now, emergency management type organizations are trying to capitalize on the advantages of the real time situational awareness offered by UAS --and enrGies continues supporting ‘Transition to Practice’ (TTP) development, not because of a business case, but because it is the right thing to do.”
As indicated above, GEOHuntsville’s UAS Working Group is diversely comprised of subject matter experts from industry, academia, and the public sector, all of which come together to make events like this possible. “Disasters do not care about political boundaries or other affiliations… Breaking down artificial barriers and working together is the fastest way to achieve all of our goals,” said John Walker, an employee of Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs and Chair of the GEOHuntsville UAS Working Group. “Really, it’s an honor and a humbling experience to be a part of something like this,” he said. “No one person in the group is above it all, and the team is all about discovering and doing what is best to enable and protect our communities.” John went on to reference how the group started a few years ago with just a handful of forward-leaning folks from the public safety and industry sectors, working with the National Weather Service to use UAS for local tornado damage assessments. Since then, the group has greatly expanded in size, performed a variety of collaborative exercises, and has also developed key, mutually beneficial partnerships with folks in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and others in similar groups all across the country. He emphasizes the importance the UAS Working Group places on up-front discussions and planning in order to successfully integrate UAS into public safety operations, noting that no matter how good of an idea it may be, if decision makers wait until the next disaster strikes before considering how UAS could be used as a tool to help emergency response efforts, then it’s too late. “That is why exercises and other activities like this one are so vitally important!”, says Walker.