FAA grant supports UAH work to better coordinate drones during disaster responses

Efforts to better coordinate drone responses to natural and human-made disasters have landed The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) a three-year, $828,070 grant, the second-largest in a group recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“This is a continuation of work UAH began with the FAA in disaster response starting a few years ago,” says Jerry Hendrix, director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program at the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

“Our progress to-date has defined new first responder UAS operating procedures for disaster support, and we have begun exercises in these new procedures and checklists in mock events across the country, in Alabama, Vermont, North Carolina and New Mexico.”

UAH will collaborate with Kansas State University, New Mexico State University, the University of Vermont and North Carolina State University. The work will focus on procedures to integrate UAS operators from within federal agencies such as the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as local and state disaster preparedness and emergency response organizations, to ensure proper coordination during emergencies.

The FAA provided funds to five universities in total in this third round of Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) grants, which brings the total to 20 grants valued at $21 million for fiscal year 2022. UAH is a charter member of ASSURE.

“This grant is a result of the leadership of ASSURE at Mississippi State University and their continued confidence in UAH,” Hendrix says.

Researchers will perform additional rounds of exercises and events to drill down into extensive coordination details for the disaster response process, Hendrix says. Investigations will also focus on delivery of data products for incident commanders, such as photos, videos and geographic data about natural and human-made disasters and emergencies like wildfires, hurricanes and train derailments. The entire process will be measured and fully documented, he says.

“The results will help inform requirements, technical standards and regulations needed to enable disaster preparedness and emergency response and recovery operations for UAS,” Hendrix says. “This research will also develop a database with data collected during the project to be analyzed to produce various key performance measures and metrics that characterize overall pilot proficiency in a flight environment.”

RSESC employees and student workers will be involved, and Hendrix says more students will be added as the program evolves.

The work may also be of value to the Cooperative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology (CIROH), of which UAH is a member. CIROH is an organization that seeks to better predict water-related hazards and manage the nation’s water resources. It is composed of 28 academic institutions, non-profit organizations and government and industry partners across the United States and Canada.

CIROH is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and administered by the Alabama Water Institute at the University of Alabama.

“Flooding is a part of the hurricane process,” Hendrix says. “In this research, we will tie together flood modeling and UAS missions in order to measure rising water, as well as to operate that system in support of wildfire response.”

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