Nur Lalji

Are Those Drones or Vultures? Examining the Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems After Hurricane Harvey

Hundreds of drones took to the sky to assist with disaster-relief efforts following Hurricane Harvey.1 They were used to help find missing relatives, monitor levees for potential flooding, and assess and map the damage to different areas across Texas.2 In some ways, these events have acted as a testing ground for the use of this technology on a larger scale.

Individuals, private companies, nonprofit organizations, and government departments implemented drones as part of their disaster relief work. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s California Task Force 3, the American Red Cross—in partnership with the UPS Foundation—and Boeing’s Insitu Foundation all used drones to assist with rescue efforts.3 One of the largest undertakings of this kind came from DroneUp, which has a platform that allows individuals and organizations to list “missions”—such as to assist with the search for a missing child—that any drone pilot can then sign up for.4 Drone pilots completed over 5,000 of these missions after Harvey.5

Outside of relief efforts, companies are also using drones to help with damage assessment and reconstruction. Major insurance companies like Farmers Insurance Group used drones to assess damages for policyholders, and AT&T announced that it would use twenty-five drones to examine cellphone towers that had been in Harvey’s path.6

This is not the first time drones have been used by particular industries—or even after a natural disaster. Construction companies, for example, have been using them to survey a site’s progress.7 After Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2005, the Safety Security Rescue Research Center—one of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s research centers—used two unmanned aerial vehicles to search for survivors.8 Drones have also been used to monitor forest fires.9 But the wide-scale use of drones after Harvey is unprecedented. As George Mathew, chairman of drone company Kespry, put it, “Harvey is a seminal moment for the [drone] industry.”10

Currently, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations permit flying drones in the national airspace under very limited circumstances. Drone operators must maintain visual line-of-sight with their aircrafts, and operate only below 400 feet.11 In most cases, drones must also be registered with the FAA.12 In the weeks leading up to Hurricane Harvey, the FAA gave special authorization to several groups to allow them to use drones in their disaster relief work, but it also issued a statement that any individuals who tried to use drones without the proper authorization would be subject to fines.13

For many companies, these regulations leave a lot to be desired. Tech companies like Google and Amazon have spent millions of dollars lobbying for changes to transportation-related initiatives, including legislation that would make drone deliveries a more viable possibility; companies in the consumer photography industry, like GoPro and Parrot, have formed a coalition to lobby for laxer standards for drone hobbyists.14

Whether the positive press coverage drone use has received following Harvey influences drone legislation remains to be seen. Hopefully, any changes will only enhance their use for the public benefit. But some for-profit industries may seek to capitalize on the technology’s moment in the spotlight, and the potential opportunity that the hurricanes have created.

It has happened before. “Disaster capitalism,” as journalist and author Naomi Klein refers to it, is a system in which for-profit entities take advantage of the destruction in infrastructure following a disaster—whether natural or man-made—in order to implement policy changes to their benefit.15 This, according to Klein, is how the New Orleans public school system was replaced by privately run charter schools after Hurricane Katrina.16 In particular, Klein highlights the rapid-fire manner in which these changes were implemented.17 “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online,” she writes, “the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.”18

The future of drone legislation following Hurricane Harvey may not end up being analogous to what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But without proper oversight, fewer restrictions on drone use may hurt more than they help—particularly for certain segments of the population.19 While drones may become increasingly prevalent in our skies as a result of their proven worth, changes to existing regulation should come slowly, so that potential issues are measuredly addressed.

Legal News & Development Editor; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2019; Pomona College, B.A. 2013. ©2017, Nur Lalji.