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NOAA UAS Program Continues Joint Testing During GEOHuntsville DemEx in Alabama

GEOHuntsville UAS Working Group is working to establish a means of assisting public first responders to do their jobs more efficiently and with greater effectiveness.

During the week of July 17th in Huntsville, AL, at a time when most folks were seeking shade and the comfort of air conditioned facilities, one dedicated group climbed up to the rooftop of the iconic Von Braun Center near downtown to test the feasibility of UAS operations for an emergency response scenario. The group, comprised of emergency first response personnel from the Huntsville and Hartselle, AL, police departments, along with UAS operators and subject matter experts from the newly formed GEO Huntsville UAS Working Group is working to establish a means of assisting public first responders to do their jobs more efficiently and with greater effectiveness. Be it a natural or man-made disaster, or any one of a variety of other emergency scenarios, the individuals responding to the public service call have an urgent need to obtain quick, actionable information that will allow them to make informed decisions for the preservation of life and property.

John Walker from the NOAA UAS Program has been part of the multi-agency and industry team that has been examining the insertion of UAS into the local response strategy. Each year, the non-profit GEOHuntsville organization develops a detailed emergency scenario based on input from its Responder and other associated working groups, each made up of subject matter experts from the field. Using emerging, accessible technologies, these working groups come together and determine new methods to address such threats and solve real-world problems that face members of the first response community all across our nation on a regular basis.

Last summer, for the 2016 GEOHuntsville demonstration and exercise (DemEx), the disaster scenario revolved around a simulated tornado emergency, with assistance provided by the Huntsville National Weather Service (NWS) office, and it highlighted the use of UAS for “rapid response” efforts to search for injured persons, identify the scope of the damage area, and aid in clean up and recovery efforts. Overall, the exercise was a tremendous success, demonstrating the effectiveness and multi-purpose utility of UAS to quickly and thoroughly address many of these objectives. However, the premise leaned heavily on the concept of “outsourced” UAS operations, in which a team of UAS operators were called into action only after a request was submitted by on-scene emergency response personnel and the local emergency management agency (EMA). While such outsourced operations pose many benefits and are ideal for entities such as NWS, whose damage survey efforts are not immediately required during the initial phase of emergency response efforts, there is still a need for what has been dubbed “ultra-fast response” UAS operations. 

Ultra-fast response UAS operations are performed by trained public first response personnel. In this component of the proposed framework, the employed UAS platforms generally cost less than many of the higher-end alternative commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) counterparts and possess just enough capabilities to reliably provide quick access to an areal perspective for obtaining actionable information. The benefit is that first responders can deploy these units within minutes of arriving on-scene to a disaster area. Then, should additional UAS resources or access to more capable UAS platforms and higher-end aerial image products be required, the option to call in back-up from professional UAS operators via the outsourced “rapid response” approach (as demonstrated during the 2016 DemEx) is available to these first response and EMA teams. 

Together, “ultra-fast response” and “rapid response” UAS operations are being incorporated into GEOHuntsville’s developing “Hybrid Tiered Concept for UAS Disaster Response Operations” (see attached figure). This hybrid tiered concept approach helps ensure that, for an emergency of any size, all bases will be covered, and the chances for successfully resolving the crisis will be maximized with a reduction in the loss to lives and property.

Highlighting the use of ultra-fast response UAS operations, for this year’s 2017 GEOHuntsville DemEx, the scenario involves the abduction of multiple high level dignitaries during a high profile function taking place at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, AL. After dropping several suspicious looking packages at key locations in around the meeting venue, the culprits will attempt to escape with hostages through a back entrance and make their getaway. In response to the incident, UAS (along with other complementary ground-based capabilities) will be deployed by on-scene law enforcement personnel, or proxies thereof, from strategic locations and used to determine the real-time locations and movement of suspects and packages dropped outside. It is believed that, through the combined use of of these capabilities, the “bad guys” will be ascertained before escaping, and a quick resolution to the emergency event will come about.

During the July pre-DemEx test phase, ahead of the upcoming full-scale event in August, GEOHunstsville-supporting organizations from the Huntsville and Hartselle, AL, police departments; OpenSensorHub; enrGies; SkyTap, Inc.; Huntsville-Madison County Rescue Squad, Inc.; and Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs (supporting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) UAS Program Office) helped deploy multiple real-time aerial-imaging UAS platforms from the top of Huntsville’s Von Braun Center to determine best methods for collaborative communication, air space deconfliction, altitude assignment, and sequencing for specific mission objectives. Among the UAS flown during the test were the 3DR Solo, DJI Mavic, DJI Inspire, Lockheed Martin Indago, and Typhoon H multi-rotor platforms (see attached figures). More testing is planned during the coming weeks leading up to the actual DemEx activity, with a goal to expand capabilities to include infrared imaging, real-time orthomosaic image draping, real-time oblique angle 3D model generation, and remote streaming of real-time imagery to other ground-based emergency response personnel. Tentative plans involve a coordination of the DemEx in conjunction with the annual symposium of the local Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Pathfinder chapter, which will be collocated at the Von Braun Center during the same week in August. It is anticipated that the results of the exercise will be briefed out at the symposium. 

Through the advancements and effective transition of UAS applications accomplished through these and several other related activities, powerful advantages are expected to not only bring benefit to public servants and other contributing government agencies, but also to each of the broader communities at large across the nation. Together, these initiatives will bring about more resilient communities for all types of disasters and pave the way for even greater benefits in the future.

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