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Drones Show Potential Use in Disaster Response

Krista Almanzan
Credit Krista Almanzan
PSI's Richard Guiler controls the Instant Eye UAV.
Credit Krista Almanzan
The Instant Eye is a small, lightweight UAV designed for soldiers to carry in their packs.
Credit Krista Almanzan
NPS UAVs used to test Swarm technology.

The FAA recently approved permits for the first commercial use of drones.  So later this summer, two drones will be used to survey ice floes and migrating whales in the Artic; as well as, support emergency response crews monitoring oil spills.  The potential use of drones beyond the battlefield was made clear this week at an event hosted by the Naval Post Graduate School

Out near a runway on Camp Roberts, just north of Paso Robles, Richard Guiler holds a small, four propeller drone in the palm of his hand.  “You set what altitude you want it, so I’ll set it at like 80 feet. And then all I have to do is hit that button, and off it goes,” said Guiler as he launches it into the sky.   The drone is called the Instant Eye. It was designed by Boston based Physical Sciences Incorporated where Guiler leads Tactical Robotics.  As it hovers overhead, Guiler looks down at a monitor showing the view of the drone’s three cameras.  “Now I can see around the trees.   I can see back at us over here,” said Guiler. 

He and his team are at Camp Roberts as part of the Naval Post Graduate School’s quarterly field experimentation event where NPS researchers, private industry and government agencies collaborate on emerging technologies.  Guiler explains Physical Sciences designed the Instant Eye for soldiers in the battlefield.  It’s something they could carry in their pack and put up in the air to get a look on rooftops or over walls. But over the years of developing this technology new potential uses have emerged, especially in the areas emergency and disaster response.  The Instant Eye can carry lightweight attachments.  “We discussed being able to bring a cell phone to someone who is trapped someplace, so that they can communicate with first responders. Thermal cameras, so you can look for someone in rubble or look for people in the forest at night,” said Guiler.

In a world where controversy surrounds the death and destruction perpetuated by some drones, Guiler sees a lot of good that can come from drones like this.  “I think the word drone has become kind of evil, but it really opens up a huge array of humanitarian, lifesaving, first responder capabilities that we don’t have right now, and will save lives if we can use them,” said Guiler.  Desiree Matel-Anderson agrees.  She’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Chief Innovation Advisor.  “There are so many different uses for unmanned aerial vehicles, also called UAVs,” said Matel-Anderson.  For example, she hopes one day FEMA can use UAVs the communicate with each other to instantly put up a wireless network to restore internet access in an area hit by a disaster.  “In disasters what will happen is the bandwidth will go down, or it will be lowered because lots of people will be using it, or the internet connectivity will be completely gone. In those situations it’s really important to allow for some sort of communications platform,” said Matel-Anderson.

Right now one challenge in the world of UAVs is that each one requires one or more operators. That’s where researchers like NPS’s Timothy Chung enter the picture.  He stands along the runway with a dozen UAVs lined up behind him.  He’s working on Swarm technology where one operator can get multiple UAVs to work as an intelligent group, whether they’re searching for someone lost in the woods or trying to defend against an attack.  “Rather than flying it manually like you would a video game, now you can basically say, hey team kind of go in this area, and by the way don’t run into each other as well, and be safe.  Don’t run into anything else etcetera, and we can now allow our robots to be able to do that in the sky.  So that improves safety, of course, but also allows the operator to do other important things,” said Chung.  So far, he and his team have managed to get ten UAVs up in the air with just two operators. The goal is 50 each.  While Swarm technology is still in the works, the small Instant Eye UAV will be in use in the near future. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.