Unmanned planes used in flood search could come to AFD

WIMBERLEY, Texas (KXAN) – Inside the RP Flight Systems building in Wimberley, owner Gene Robinson has dozens of planes hanging on the wall. His planes do not have a pilot, do not carry passengers and the wings are made from the same Styrofoam as a disposable ice cooler.

That is what makes unmanned aerial vehicles such a valuable tool.

“We can send it into areas where you might not want to send a person,” said Robinson.

Robinson has lent his expertise of UAVs to help in the devastation in Hay County following the Memorial Day weekend floods. Using a remote-control or a pre-planned computer operated flight path, planes equipped with a 10-mega pixel camera surveyed flood damage along a 7-mile stretch of the Blanco River. The camera is powerful enough to spot even the smallest of objects.

“We can identify objects on the ground as small as 1 ¾ inch.”

A task that can be done by manned planes or helicopters, but at a fraction of the cost. Robinson said the computer on the plane is the most expensive piece of equipment, ranging $5,000-$15,000. UAVs can also gather data quickly and without putting humans at risk. Those advantages of being small, efficient and economical are why the Austin Fire Department is researching the use of UAVs.

“We really think this is a technology that could benefit the Central Texas area,” said Lt. Elizabeth Donelson with the Austin Fire Department Robotic Emergency Department team. “Depending how we use it, we might be able to take firefighters out of harm’s way.”

Specifically, the department said robotics can help during floods, wildfires, and search and rescue missions. AFD is currently testing ground robots capable of being used during hazmat calls, building collapses and rescues in confined places.

AFD said they have received a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing them to conduct training flights. Although no time frame has been laid out, Donelson said they plan on moving forward with the idea of using UAVs in the future to help with safety specific missions.

“We are not peering into windows, no black helicopter type thing. That is now what we want to do,” said Donelson about any privacy concerns people may have about the use of UAVs.

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