Austin Fire Department training to use drones for floods

BRYAN, Texas (KXAN) — This week, emergency responders from across the country were at Texas A&M, learning the latest drone technologies, to use for flood disasters.

Organized by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), this is the second year the Summer Institute has focused on responding to and recovering from flooding. First responders participating say it’s the number one disaster they want to train for.

“A robot is not going to replace us. A robot is an extension of us,” said Austin Fire Department’s, Coitt Kessler. He’s the program manager for the department’s Robotic Emergency Deployment Team, one of the first of its kind.

Kessler says through the Summer Institute, researchers and first responders can figure out real-world solutions for search and rescue operations. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can be the difference between saving a life and losing.

“We’re looking at the problems we experienced most recently, and trying to figure out best practices and equipment that we can use to effect change,” said Kessler.

AFD is the first metro fire department in the country with FAA approval to fly unmanned aerial systems. Training with academic researchers and industry leaders will help them do that one day. Currently they’re still in the research and development phase.

“Flooding is the number one disaster in the world,” says Dr. Robin Murphy, Director for CRASAR. She organized the event, and has worked 20 major disasters utilizing robots. “By doing participatory research, by being there, we learn from responders what’s important, what’s not. What’s working, what’s not.”

UAV’s can be up in the air from 30 minutes to an hour-and-a-half. They can detect colors and highlight debris. Emergency responders can look for those images when trying to rescue victims.

New mapping software called SituMap, allows emergency responders to easily see a physical environment on a tablet command center, with precise detail.

“Tools, tools, tools, tools. It’s what we’re creating here. Technology is a tool for us,” said Kessler. “We can identify problems, research can create solutions and industry can make those solutions.”

Students from around the world also attended the training, showing their research to emergency responders. Kessler says it makes him excited for the future.

AFD has ordered a UAV that will be used to continue research and development. Once the public is on board with first responders using the technology, and they’re able to get funding, the department hopes to use them regularly.

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