Drone operators converge on Texas to help assess Hurricane Harvey damage

World Today

Officials in Texas are still assessing the damage from Hurricane Harvey as the death toll from that storm climbs to at least 70. Some areas are still flooded and difficult to reach.

But drone operators have flocked to the area to help. The disaster comes a year after restrictions on the use of drones were eased.

And it provides an opportunity to use drones in a natural disaster.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy has details.

From the moment Hurricane Harvey began dumping rain on South Texas, volunteers have poured into the area offering to help. 

“I knew that there would be a need,” drone operator Parker Gyokeres said. “The storm was big, it was hitting the worst city–the worst city to be hit–and we knew that there was going to be a lot of flooding and that there’d be a need to get a view into places where we wouldn’t be able to drive or walk.”

The view Parker Gyokeres provided comes from a drone. He teamed up with other drone operators who rushed to Houston with the very same idea.

“We can do this all autonomously, with program software, with off the shelf drones, and professional pilots that are offering to help,” said Gyokeres.

The mission was damage assessment. Working first with the Red Cross in Houston, then in nearby Port Arthur and Rockport, Texas, Gyokeres’ group gathered neighborhood-specific information that could help with storm cleanup and recovery.

“We are able to provide them super high-resolution overhead imagery that can be placed over existing maps to show the Red Cross, when they need to send in ground teams, exactly what areas were affected in the middle of this,” he said.

There are countless water-logged areas all across Houston. That’s a lot of territory to cover, a lot of neighborhoods to check. What better way to do it than from the air.

“We put our boots on the ground and our aircraft up to get data needed to help solve this issue,” pilot Daniel Herbert with the group, Humanitariandrones.org said.

Herbert said drones offer a quicker, cheaper, safer way to survey problem areas that are difficult to access otherwise.

“To take photos of that from the air from just a couple hundred feet up with precision detail is just fantastic,” Herbert said.

This group, which relies on private donations to fund its efforts, is one of dozens of organizations that have taken advantage of relatively new U.S. aviation rules to fly drones here in the flood zone.

“We’ve been fighting for this, “drones for good” mantra for quite a while,” Herbert said. “Showing the public and the media that this technology can be put to good use, and not just for spying in people’s windows and whatnot and causing problems.”

One rescue official reminded Gyokeres of all the ground in Texas that still needs to be explored.

“I asked how much there would be to cover and she just pointed to the map of Houston,” he recalled. “They are desperately needing the visual products that we provide there.”

A need that doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon.