Fixed-Wing Drone Aids Emergency Response in Florida Wildfire

Earlier this month, the Mussett Bayou fire was just one of more than 70 wildfires burning across the state of Florida. A period of drought, high winds and low humidity fueled it to burn nearly 350 acres of wildlands, damage 59 structures and destroy 34 homes. With the help of an eBee X, the Center of Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University assisted emergency rescue teams in assessing the damage.

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On the Move

The call came in on a Wednesday night when the fire was 65 percent under control. David Merrick—the UAS Coordinator for the State of Florida and the Director of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy and the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program at Florida State University—and his team were on the scene by lunchtime Thursday.

“Normally, we would have moved very, very early Thursday morning,” Merrick said, “but because of COVID-19, we had to get approval from the university before we could move.”

“Without the fixed-wing, we would have depended on a traditional multi-rotor drone. We would have had to make four, five or six flights per single flight that we got from the eBee.”

Flying High and Low

Launching from a nearby soccer field lined with trees and powerlines, the eBee X took off for its first of two 60-minute flights to cover the affected area. It had to battle strong winds and operate from dated base maps.

“Weather conditions were not great; it was a gusty day,” Merrick said. “We had winds at 20 to 25 knots literally the entire time. But it worked fine. It really did”

Using the steep landing option in eMotion, senseFly’s flight planning software, the team had no issue landing the drone in the confined space, even with the lack of updated base maps.

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The team captured a snapshot of the eBee X's flight path in senseFly's eMotion software.

“I think eMotion is the best flight planning and flight management software I’ve used on any platform in eight years,” Merrick said, “It’s easy to use. It gives you the data that you need; it doesn’t give you any useless stuff. It’s a breeze.”

Despite the challenges posed by weather, crowded airspace and tight working areas, the damage assessment map was in the hands of the emergency response teams by Thursday afternoon.

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A snapshot of the Mussett Bayou damage assessment captured by the eBee X and processed in ESRI.

An additional flight took place on Friday to complete more detailed mapping. Launching from a construction site, the eBee X flew at a low level of less than 200 feet. With a senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D sensor, they created a higher-resolution map and 3D model of the four neighborhoods hit hardest by the fire.

Why the eBee X

This was the first mission where an eBee model drone was used by Merrick’s team. Prior to this mission, they had only two days of training with the RMUS team. So, why did they choose to use the eBee X?

“Without the fixed-wing, we would have depended on a traditional multi-rotor drone,” Merrick said. “We would have had to make four, five or six flights per single flight that we got from the eBee.”

And that wouldn’t have been acceptable.

“We were trying to shoehorn our operations into when the airspace was clear,” Merrick said. “Feasibly, we wouldn’t have been able to get it done in the time we had available.”

“I think eMotion is the best flight planning and flight management software I’ve used on any platform in eight years.”

“This was our first deployment with an eBee… the first time we’ve operationally used something that I can’t fly myself with a controller,” Merrick said. “Overall, it was a great experience.”

For more information about the eBee X, click here.

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