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Utility of UAS for National Weather Service Damage Assessments

Report for the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Office

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program teaming with the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Forecast Offices (WFO) analyzed the observational requirements for post-hazard damage assessment (PDA), or “damage surveys” to determine an approaches to acquire unique, affordable PDA imagery using UAS. In addition to providing other viable benefits for NWS WFOs, this technology may be applicable to assessing damage produced from severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, winter storms, and wildfires, as well as various types of ongoing hazards, such as flooding events.  (Report attached)

When made available to local NWS offices during the planning stages of a PDA, this data has the capacity to save time and other limited resources by providing upfront information, such as the length and width of a damaged region, locations where the most intense damage has occurred, and potential inbound routes to areas where ground-based survey teams may need to deploy for in-situ examination. It can also provide gap-filling information about damage sites located in overly hazardous or rural areas where there are no accessible roadways, making it difficult or impossible to assess damage via traditional ground-based operations.

Investigation into multiple avenues for making UAS imagery available to local NWS offices has been a key objective of this study. Based on previous work and a review of the steps other government organizations have taken, an outsourced UAS operations approach presents the most viable means of accomplishing this objective. Building upon existing partnerships, and through an identification of common needs with local Emergency Management Agency (EMA) offices, a unified approach to outsourced UAS disaster response efforts is attainable. This route can provide beneficial aerial imagery to NWS and EMA without the cumbersome responsibilities that come with UAS operations, maintenance, and training. With the release of supportive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, many communities already possess a wealth of public and commercial operators with whom partnerships can be established for disaster response activities.

A list of lessons learned and best practices has been compiled and continues to evolve from a series of discussions and successfully executed missions performed by civil and public operators from around the country. The latency in activating UAS assets and generating useful aerial imagery are the largest obstacles that must be overcome to effectively use this resource for emergency response and PDA. Advanced planning, preparation, and development of formal protocols with local partners and stakeholders are at the forefront of these best practices and represent a recurring theme.

UAS applications for rapid response missions can assist the NWS and partnering emergency response teams to perform missions more safely, efficiently, and effectively. Together, several diverse, dedicated groups from around the country have accomplished much in the development of UAS for such applications, yet more work remains.

To a community that is affected by a disaster, all emergencies are “local”. The successful transition of these UAS applications into operations depends heavily on the proactive development of technology, formal protocols, and plans for operational execution. In advance of the next disaster, it is only through these efforts that the NWS and its many local partners may reap the maximum benefit attainable from UAS capabilities during rapid response and damage survey operations.

This study was led by John Walker and John “JC” Coffey of the NOAA UAS Program.