First responders to Monday's massive tornado in Moore, Okla., were greeted with a blighted expanse of destroyed homes, blocked roads, downed power lines and a limited window of time to unearth survivors before the sun set.
Navigating the area on foot or by car was a challenge because of the debris. News and law-enforcement helicopters filled the air above, but while they gathered useful information for rescue crews, the noise they created was drowning out cries for help from trapped survivors.
The entire area was declared a no-fly zone.
But one airborne technology will soon make responding to these kinds disasters easier: unmanned automated vehicles, more commonly called drones. These portable, affordable aircraft can launch quickly in dangerous situations, locate survivors and send data about their whereabouts to responders on the ground.
There is a lot of excitement about drones in the public-safety world, and they are very close to being used in the field after natural disasters. However, they still face lengthy regulatory hurdles, privacy concerns, and a public image problem inherited from their armed, military cousins.
Still, the UAV industry and emergency responders are preparing for the day when they can launch drones after tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and any other disaster.
"The public just isn't really in the habit of depending on them," said James Stuckey, CEO of Fireflight, an Oklahoma-based drone company. "When they start, they won't be able to do without them."
The benefits of drones in an emergency are reach, speed, safety and cost. When there is no power, a UAV can fly through the dark and live-stream night-vision footage to people on the ground, its paths automatically programmed so it doesn't miss a spot. A mounted infrared camera can pick up on heat signatures of bodies, pinpointing the locations of survivors so rescuers know where to go.
Unlike manned helicopters, drones create very little sound and can even be outfitted with advanced listening devices to pick up hard-to-hear audio. They can go into dangerous situations that would pose a risk to pilots or responders on foot. While helicopter propellers can stir up debris and dust, UAVs weigh as little as three pounds and don't disturb what's on the ground, even when they're hovering just 10 feet above it.
Prices for commercial UAVs range from $15,000 to $50,000 -- a fraction of what a helicopter costs. They can fit in the trunk of a car and be up in the air in no time.
"It's usually 45 minutes to an hour after you arrive on scene on an incident before you get real information," said Fireflight's Stuckey, a veteran firefighter of 27 years. "We can have (a UAV) up in the air in three minutes."
Roadblocks to use
The American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma was considering using Fireflight's UAVs immediately after the tornado, but didn't because of the no-fly zone, according to Steve Klapp, the regional disaster assessment manager.
The Red Cross chapter has used UAVs in tests before, such as in a disaster-assessment exercise in March. On Wednesday it considered using the aircraft to gather boundary data at the tornado scene, but Klapp said he would probably end up getting the information from other sources this time.
"We're definitely planning to use them more in the future," said Klapp. "It's a question of the right situation."
The Oklahoma National Guard is also on the ground in Moore and has trained with drones for use in Afghanistan, but said it did not deploy any in the disaster area.
The main delay, according to Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit trade association for drone companies, is that the Federal Aviation Administration is very restrictive about who can fly a drone and how they can fly it. Congress has given the FAA until 2015 to come up with rules for flying UAVs in U.S. airspace, including safety regulations, how pilots need to be trained, how an aircraft is certified, and the process for notifying local air-traffic controllers.
Until those regulations are in place, any civilian or military organization that wants to fly drones above 400 feet needs to get a special waiver from the agency. This is a lengthy process that can take one or more years, according to Gielow, although the FAA claims to have shaved it down to an average of 60 days.
There is an exception for emergencies, which would expedite the application process, but it does not appear to be wildly used for disasters.
A life saver
Disaster response is just one use for drones by public safety agencies, which the AUVSI predicts will account for 10 percent of the future drone industry. Stuckey created Fireflight's unmanned aircraft specifically to help fire departments gather information during Oklahoma's wildfire seasons, the last three of which have been especially vicious.
Thermal-imaging cameras can be used to see through smoke, and the UAVs can go into areas that would be too dangerous for manned aircraft.
One of the first reported cases of a drone saving someone's life occurred three weeks ago. A man was driving along a highway at night in Canada when his vehicle rolled of the road, knocking him unconscious. It was dark, with near-freezing temperatures, and emergency workers were unable to locate the car and injured driver, even with night-vision goggles and a helicopter.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police deployed an unmanned aircraft with an infrared camera, which picked up on the man's heat signature.