Drones in Disaster: A Sobering View

Hurricane Harvey has dropped more than 11 trillion gallons of water on southeast Texas and Louisiana. A number that big is difficult to comprehend in our minds. Sure some folks try to use illustrations like, "2 inches of water over the entire state of Texas" or they may try to equate Olympic sized swimming pools or they even try visualizing that water as a big cube miles wide. But nothing puts it into perspective like a photograph or video from the air showing the wide-spread destruction.

In the aftermath (and even during) the torrential rain in Houston we were already seeing drone footage from affected areas. The powerful images were broadcast on every network and those images mesmerized America for days. It wasn’t something we haven’t seen before, it was simply that we hadn’t seen so many different views from so many different places with such rapid succession.


These views were thanks to the proliferation of consumer drones with HD cameras and real-time video down-links. These drones are relatively inexpensive and are often given as Christmas presents every year. With an estimated 770,000 drones in the U.S. many hobbyists are stepping outside and becoming aerial photographers and videographers documenting the conditions around their neighborhood.  A quick search of YouTube shows hundreds of videos uploaded by amateur drone pilots in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  In effect, these pilots become citizen journalists much like we’ve seen with the cell phone revolution.

Drones are allowing us to document the effects of hurricanes and other disasters like never before. Instead of relying on word pictures and illustrations we can see, from the air, what 11 trillion gallons of water can do. Now we can see neighborhood by neighborhood the extent of flooding, wind damage and debris almost immediately.

While these drone pilots are offering new and sometimes sobering images from the air, there are others who are working towards turning those views into actionable data for emergency officials. These images are being used by emergency personnel to effectively provide rescue and relief to targeted areas instead of canvasing all areas.