Plumes of grey ash mixed with gas explode violently over the La Soufrière volcano in St Vincent, spreading far across the sky. In Iceland, the massive Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano spouts red-hot lava high into the air and over the sides of its crater, transforming the landscape with ominous orange-black ooze. Drones have been hovering nearby, bearing witness to these recent events and bringing vital information back to disaster management authorities and the public.
Drone technology is becoming increasingly important in the way humans operate and respond to crises. Its life-saving capabilities are endless, especially during COVID.
Managing Director of Rectrix Drone Services Ltd, Anthony Vieira, in a recent interview with Sunday Guardian, said, "My take is risk a drone, not a helicopter or a life. After hurricanes and other natural disasters, drones are deployed not only to conduct search and rescue, and search and recovery, but also damage assessment on properties, electricity distribution, water contamination, as well as, to aid in restoring communications by functioning as transmitters or relay stations."
The technology can also support disaster management efforts by patrolling for people who should have evacuated and for those in distress, and by dropping supplies of medicine and food, Vieira said. As a result, the exposure of search and rescue personnel to dangerous situations and conditions is minimised.
When COVID first struck in Wuhan, China, drones with infrared cameras and PA systems were used to call people to their windows to measure their temperature during the lockdown. Additionally, drones carrying up to ten litres of EPA-approved disinfectant were used to sanitise the city. Releasing spray from ten feet above the ground, several drones covered up to 600,000 sq kms in one day; a task which he said, would have involved 100 workers risking their lives.
Apart from their use by public health and safety agencies, significant advancements in drone technology have seen them being adopted by industries like construction and oil and gas for monitoring equipment and conducting inspections; agriculture to observe crops and spray fertiliser and pesticides; communications to create temporary cellular, WiFi and high-frequency radio signals and security to provide surveillance and emergency management. Aerial photographers showcasing scenery, events or real estate and hobbyists also benefit from the technology.
Originally developed for the military, over the last 20 years these pilotless robots have been adapted for commercial purposes, Vieira said. They are known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). They are either operated remotely by a drone pilot using a ground control system or are autonomous, functioning on their own after a flight plan is set.
Compared to helicopters, which have been the aircraft of choice in disaster management and safety operations, drones are quicker to deploy, cheaper to operate and can stay airborne longer. They can carry sensors similar to those on helicopters like optical, digital or thermal cameras, he said.
A retired helicopter captain for most of his adult life Vieira has seen the world from a different perspective; a quality that has made his transition to drone technology quite natural.
In his 19 years of flying with Bristow Caribbean and National Helicopter Services and instructing pilots, engineers, oil and offshore workers in Sea Survival for Pilots and Passengers, and in Helicopter Underwater Egress (or Escape) Training (HUET), he said he has learnt the value of safety and applies this to his drone services.
Having supported the TTPS in Surveillance and Reconnaissance (SR) during Carnivals 2019 and 2020 and a member of the ODPM UAV Volunteer group, he shared his perspective on this country's readiness to implement aspects of drone technology. Describing the use of drones here in T&T as still "relatively new," he explained, "...that is because of legislation and lack of awareness and acceptance by companies, institutions. The TTPS is now coming of age by investing in drones and contracting specialist support as and when needed."
He observed that there was a need for more resources and training, suggesting that drones could fill gaps in national helicopter and Air Guard units stunted by high costs of equipment, operations and maintenance.
Vieira stressed the benefits of the technology, especially as the country grapples with COVID. He said with persistent breaches in Trinidad's North Coast and South West Coast, drone surveillance could deter illegal entry and human trafficking. Operating in stealth mode at night, particular drones could remain airborne for five-ten hours while relaying a "Live Stream" from powerful optical and thermal cameras which could detect warm, moving bodies in seacraft and those hiding in the bushes.
Drones could be flown in areas to make PSAs (Public Service Announcements) issuing warnings for people not wearing masks and congregating, to disperse. They could be also beneficial in monitoring businesses like bars, some of whom break current restrictions. Rather than shut down an entire sector, only those found in contravention would be dealt with, he said.
For border control exercises, he recommended drones with longer endurance or flight times such as the Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VTOL) drone which resembles a small remote-controlled plane and does not require a runway or takeoff distance, and autonomous drones which fly on a pre-programmed route and have powerful optical zoom and thermal imaging as well as anti-collision lights.
Others like the Sky Mantis made in the UK, the Skydio X2D and the Parrot Anafi, both developed in the US, have quick deploy features, making them able to become airborne in as few as 60 seconds after arrival at a scene of investigation–a must-have in conducting police work.
Vieira also indicated that there were security drones with tear gas dispensers for crowd control in protests, for instance, which reduce risks to protective services officers.
He said beyond simply providing drones, he aimed to conduct research into technology tailored for specific challenges and train others in their use. He was happy to report that Drone Facial Recognition Software they tested earlier this year had proved promising.
In terms of outfitting the fire services, firefighting drones could be employed, he said. One type used in China could shoot a ball of Dry Powder to put out fires. Locally, a tethered system with optical zoom and a thermal imaging camera could allow an incident commander to relay information indefinitely to fire, police and army and indicate if a fire had been completely extinguished.
Exploring the possibility of providing drone support in the region, Vieira said one of their VTOL brands could fly up to ten hours for some 200 km which could mean flying to Grenada and other islands to offer help.
"200 km allows us to fly to Grenada. If we put a portable repeater on Grenada, we can extend the range and fly it up to and beyond St Vincent. We even can look at the use of drones to support volcanologists in monitoring certain volcanoes. The technology is awesome," he said.
Q&A with Anthony Vieira, current FAA PART 107 SUAS pilot
In terms of natural disasters, search and rescue, in what weather conditions drones operate?
You would find your typical hobby drone is not developed for flight in rain. Some drones that are developed for the rescue services would have IP ratings, the higher the ratings the more weather and high winds they can take. (Sky Mantis from the UK withstands winds up 89 km an hour, Matrice 300 RTK from China for high winds and heavy rain.)
Each drone has operating requirements including temperature and weather limitations such as rain, dust, sun and wind. Your average drone can fly in winds of about 16 to 37 km an hour.
You were one of the stakeholders who met with the ODPM early last year to offer resources to strengthen their disaster management capacity. How would you support them?
Office for Disaster Preparedness and Management is a division of National Security. They saw the need to incorporate drones to support during crisis and emergency. You have the perennial issue of flooding and then search and recovery/rescue. They sent out a request for volunteers and a number of people responded. The ODPM UAV Volunteer group was formed, headed by Eric Mackie. We have last year responded to help search for a flood victim unfortunately washed off a bridge in Williamsville. We responded to a missing lady in Gasparillo and then of course, to the oil spill in the Godineau River. I'm proud of the group as everyone makes the effort to respond no matter time of day or night.
Your company follows the guidelines of the T&T Civil Aviation Authority (TTCAA). What legal and ethical considerations are involved in flying drones locally?
Unmanned aircraft must give way to manned aircraft. In integrating drones into the national airspace, care must be taken to avoid collisions with traditional aircraft. Internationally and locally Civil Aviation has received numerous reports of drones operating in proximity to aircraft. That is where our company is going in that we are working to sensitise the public and provide training on how to operate these drones safely.
The regulation states you cannot operate Category 1 UAs (Unmanned Aircraft) higher than 100 feet, nor Category 2,3,4 or 5 UAs higher than 400 feet but do you know I have seen videos and heard people saying they took a chance and flew to 5,000 and 6,000 feet?
We have restricted and prohibited air spaces that the public doesn't know. These include POS (TTR1) SFC–2500’; Chaguaramas (TTR6) SFC—2500’; the Caroni Sanctuary (TTP4) Nature Reserve; Pt Lisas Industrial Estate (TTR9). We operate with permission from PLIPDECO and the TTCAA.
Unfortunately, drones are not operated for good purposes only. TTCAR #9 speaks to permission required to fly over people's property and film. You may have heard from the Commissioner of Prisons at a recent Joint Select Committee that drones are being used to drop contraband in the prisons and this is happening all over the world, so we also need to consider anti-drone capability–drone jammers.
It was reported that a drone was used to monitor the whereabouts of somebody in the Enterprise area last year and shortly thereafter he was shot and killed...or they could use the drone for dropping IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). That is being used by ISIS and recently by the Houthi militias in Yemen. Saudia Aramco suffered severe losses when drones dropped homemade bombs on a couple of their pumping stations forcing them to shut down half the kingdom’s oil production.