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Posted 3/8/2017

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By Tim Oberle
USACE Mobile

MOBILE, Ala. – When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Mobile District (Mobile), assembled an emergency response team to support recovery operations in the wake of an EF3 tornado that touched down near Albany, Ga. in January, the district decided to try a unique approach.

Among the nine-member team who deployed to the field to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), were two members of the USACE, Jacksonville District’s (Jacksonville), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team.

“Initially we were given 13 counties in Georgia to go in and conduct [debris removal] mission analysis assessments,” said Bo Ansley, Mobile chief of emergency management. “When we do that, we are basically given a geographic area that no FEMA person has been in yet and we do forensics [to determine] the amount of debris, the characteristics of the debris, and how it can be disposed.”

With around a half million cubic yards of debris sprawled across 13 counties, Ansley decided it presented an excellent opportunity to integrate UAV capabilities into his operations.

“There was no way that we could go all 78 miles through swamps, mountains, and valleys,” Ansley explained. “So the drones were a way of telling us where the debris was [located]. It really reduced the amount of time and money that we had in the mission.”

In addition to expediting recovery operations, the aerial imagery helped the USACE and the FEMA compare post-event conditions with what each site looked like prior to the storm.

“You can [use] Google Earth to see a site pre-event and you can make sure that it wasn’t a significant historical site or a wetland or something like that,” said Ansley. “Then you look at the aerial imagery and do a comparison to what that site might have looked like before.”

Despite having only worked with a UAV team a couple of times, Ansley thinks that the technology is something that the USACE will employ in the future as an analysis tool across the spectrum of emergency management.

“It’s been kind of an enlightenment,” Ansley said. “Not only for what we focus on for debris removal, but really across the board in emergency management.”

Mike Hensch, lead UAV project engineer for Jacksonville, elaborated on the positive impact that the emerging technology can have on a typical mission.

“It’s really a tool that field workers can use to do rapid assessments of damage,” Hensch said. “You can cover a lot of ground… to get information into the hands of the decision makers quickly. Our largest system covers over 1,000 acres per flight, and our smaller systems can cover around 100 acres per flight.”

As UAV technology continues to become readily available, more USACE units may explore their potential. Although unmanned aircraft offer a wide-range of possibilities, Hensch said the deciding factor for units will ultimately be based on their operational requirements.

“I think this technology is only increasing and improving so there is potential,” said Hensch. “But each district is going to have to decide if they have the business model and enough projects to support setting up a full-time team, or if it would make more sense to just utilize other groups who already have teams established.”