CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Aerial drones from a Texas university proved useful in the search for bodies and mapping debris-strewn terrain following deadly flash flooding along the Blanco River this spring, according to the head of the university’s unmanned aircraft program.
The Memorial Day weekend flooding in parts of Central Texas claimed more than two dozen lives. The bodies of two children, swept away by floodwaters in Wimberley, have yet to be recovered.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported Friday that unmanned aircraft from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi were used in the search efforts.
Experts have praised the drones that helped accurately map affected areas, some of which were impassable because of ground debris. Images shot by the drones showed washed out campsites caked in mud and acres of twisted brush and uprooted trees that were left in the flood’s wake.
Jerry Hendrix, executive director of the university’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, said the technology could be used in researching hurricanes and monitoring oil facilities and the U.S-Mexico border.
“Maybe one day we’ll see Hurricane Hunters replaced by UAS technology,” he said during a meeting with aviation experts and first responder.
The university’s Lone Star Center was selected by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six unmanned aircraft system test sites in late 2013.
Elizabeth Soltys, manager of the FAA’s UAS test site program, said the challenge is finding a balance between hobbyists and commercial drone operators, while also considering the safety of manned aircraft, such as helicopters and fixed-wing craft, during emergencies or natural disasters.
State Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi said that the university’s program could unlock potential economic growth. A 2013 study by the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International estimated that millions of dollars and more than 1,200 jobs could come to South Texas as a result of opening airspace to drones.
Hunter said drones could become effective tools in gauging coastal erosion and monitoring water development, including desalination.
“You’re seeing (the Coastal Bend) get on the cutting edge of educational excellence in technology,” he said.