Firefighters on the scene of a forest wildfire
By Bob Ashenbrenner | October 03, 2019

Disasters, Drones and Developing the Future Capabilities for Mobile Workers and First Responders

Rugged tablets are teaming up with “eye-in-the-sky” technologies to inform response actions and provide relief on the ground.

The United States has seen a significant number of record-setting natural disasters over the last couple of years, from the California wildfires to the back-to-back hurricanes that have wreaked devastation from Puerto Rico through Florida and all the way to South-Central Texas.

The human cost of life and injury, plus massive destruction of homes and businesses are the headlines of these events. Dealing with the life challenges of so many people will be an ongoing concern for many more years to come, including the first responders, utility workers and other field service professionals who ran into “the line of fire”. They worked tirelessly and quickly to reduce the loss of life, and then to restore essential services and deliver immediate aid to those who needed it most. Then, without a break, relief crews shifted efforts to ensure the safety of remaining infrastructure. They started inspecting damage to bridges, as well as shelters, hospitals and other key sites, before taking fast action to make necessary repairs.

While there is still much to do to return to some level of normalcy in many of these areas, the first – and second – responders who have worked to rebuild critical services, have made tremendous progress, especially given the amount of the damage that has repeatedly occurred. Progress that, if we’re being honest, can be greatly credited to the progress made in the development and application of technology. Technology that increases response crews’ efficiency in time-sensitive situations.

Disaster response is a crucible test of the tools, techniques and tactics that these agencies have at their disposal. Mobile technologies usually deployed for everyday work have really been put to the test during these recent disasters. Though these technologies are generally successful for the use cases they were originally designed for – such as dealing with the aftermath of a thunderstorm that knocks down a powerline or two or routine fire and rescue calls – these huge disasters expose important new applications for everything from rugged tablets to the drones and hybrid underwater ROVs they control.

Building a New Foundation – From the Top, Down

A couple years back, I attended the annual UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Conference in Cape May, NJ. This conference brings together industry and government representatives to talk about the development, advances, and regulatory frameworks to commercialize drone applications. With technological capabilities far beyond the toy drones that most people think of, these are real systems that provide cost-effective ways to solve real field problems.

Convening right on the heels of several natural disasters, this conference’s relevancy was especially heightened. Representatives of law enforcement, Homeland Security, FEMA and industry involved in widespread recovery efforts attended, and there was much discussion about how several different technology tools were used. There was also great debate about how technology should be used better to support future efforts.

For example, there were demonstrations of how drones could examine structures after a major earthquake, especially places too dangerous for people to quickly inspect. A leading telecom provider also showed how long-duration flights of drones over affected areas can not only assess damage, but deliver required cellular voice and data services to public safety personnel via remote-controlled cellular “towers” that would direct them to people in need. Another drone-systems company reported on a real-world scenario, flying along the California wildfire line to assess risks to critical infrastructure. Flying cell towers, and visual and thermal sensors over wildfire areas, all overlaid with geographic information system (GIS) data of cellular towers and power lines, provide the real-time information that responders need to coordinate efforts, maintain crew accountability and manage rehab in real time via rugged tablets and other mobile technologies.

There was also discussion of using drones with infrared sensors to overfly areas affected by natural disasters before and after an event to provide an actionable census. This use case stemmed from a real-world scenario that occurred after Hurricane Irma left Key West. Coast Guard personnel drove into the town on bulldozers – the only kind of vehicle that could make it through the debris. They found many homeowners in a mobile home park who had no transportation to evacuate and were forced to shelter in place. This was a surprise to authorities who had thought everyone had left. Had drones been available to provide additional eyes overhead, this highly dangerous situation could have been averted.

At the same time, drones could have also helped the doctors and other out-of-towners who descended on Houston in an unofficial capacity after Hurricane Harvey. Many volunteers were in personal boats when they realized that they didn’t know what hazards were in the water, such as power lines and homeowner propane tanks to name a few. In future responses, expect more use of waterproof tablets with GIS overlays to show the electrical grid lines and drones that scout out areas ahead of relief efforts to look for items not on an GIS map, such as propane tanks. (You can also expect to see an increase in satellite-connected rugged tablet use for relief coordination in areas where drones have not yet been deployed and Wi-Fi and cellular signals are limited, such as the case in Houston after Harvey.)

However, these certainly aren’t the only life-saving applications that we can and should foresee for drones. UAS technologies have been used to deliver medicines, food and water in demonstrations at Cape May, NJ. There are many routine public safety applications that are gaining traction as well. Just as important to note, though: drones also have great potential to avert crises beyond major emergency response events.

One tech company is perfecting the ability to inspect aircraft for wear or damage, whether that aircraft is on the tarmac or in a hanger where GPS isn’t a viable navigation aid. Others are developing drones that can inspect rail lines or pipelines in remote areas, autonomously. Using GPS and GIS overlays of power lines and other hazards, drones will fly along these paths and use sensors and cameras to inspect these lines, while workers will only be dispatched to areas that need follow up. In other words, disaster response is a growing business and governmental opportunity for the UAS industry.

What It Will Take to Drive Drones into the Mainstream

While drones alone can add significant value to many industrial and field service applications, their capabilities are often amplified when they can directly interface with mobile devices on the ground in a more collaborative way. Having a drone see a stranded victim is useless if there is no way to communicate the finding to first responders. Coupling drone’s unique situational awareness with resilient communications – such as mobile devices that can put overlays of hazards and support personnel in the hands of on-the-ground personnel – will ensure help reaches those in need quicker. It also reduces the risk of response actions for both professional and volunteer rescuers.

Thus, we are seeing the quick evolution of complementary technologies to improve the knowledge and capabilities of field responders. As core mobile computing technologies such as rugged tablets are put in the hands of these workers as part of standard operating procedures, they become the technology platform upon which additional drone capabilities can most effectively be applied in a “layers of support” concept. Just as security is best delivered using layers of protection, the tools to protect and support mobile workers start with rugged tablets, handheld mobile computers with built-in radios or push-to-talk capabilities and GIS tools. They can then expand to specialized peripherals and, soon, drones. There is also a rising demand for rugged tablets that can serve a dual purpose, as both the info-capturing mobile computer and drone control panel.

This hand-in-hand coordination between mobile workers and remote technology assets makes workers safer and more productive, especially as the technologies become more common and sophisticated. At a fundamental level, rugged tablets reduce “paperwork” time – non-productive hours spent in the office or generating reports, etc. That translates to more time in the field performing the mission. However, the real benefit, as we have seen after recent natural disasters, is having better-informed first responders in action to minimize the literal life-or-death consequences by minimizing guesstimations.

The coordinated mobile device-drone interactions improve real-time situational knowledge – and thus safety – which amplifies the return on investment (ROI) for both of these technologies far beyond basic expectations. Just knowing how close support resources are located is a valuable benefit of mobile technology, such as this Battalion 3 command and control solutionHowever, the access gained to dangerous and otherwise inaccessible areas via robots and drones – and the information subsequently gathered – is invaluable whether you’re fighting fires or simply trying to prevent one during remote oil or gas pipeline inspections.


Editor’s Note: If you're going to IACP 2019, stop by booth #3855 to learn how Zebra’s rugged tablets and handheld mobile computing solutions can be used to support your drone operations. Or, you can leave a note for our mobility team in the Comments section below or via the contact form

Innovative Ideas, Public Sector,
Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner

Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, under the direction of Bob Ashenbrenner, works with Zebra Technologies to develop future-proof mobility solutions for customers across multiple field service and industrial sectors. As an industry consultant, Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, is focused on optimizing rugged tablet-based solutions for mobile workers of all kinds, including utility and public safety professionals. Ashenbrenner is particularly committed to helping customers identify mobile devices that survive a tough work day, run all the software and tools needed today, and will remain flexible and scalable to adapt to evolving technology applications as business needs dictate.

Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen. He was previously a Solutions Architect with Xplore Technologies and Motion Computing for 13 years. In that role, Ashenbrenner led the development of a suite of rugged mobile tablet computer, services and software, with an emphasis on supporting the whole mobile work environment.

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