Airbus: Thousands of Drones Expected To Fly on Florence

 - September 14, 2018, 9:42 AM

Thousands of drones are expected to be used to assess property and infrastructure damage in the wake of Hurricane Florence this week in the Carolinas. “There will be thousands of drone pilots out flying for this event for sure,” Airbus Aerial president Jesse Kallman told AIN. Aerial matches satellite and drone data and images with proprietary analytics and software tools for a clientele that includes utilities, insurance companies, and government agencies. 

Early estimates of the potential property damage in the wake of record rainfall caused by the multi-state storm could be daunting, with insurers estimating that as many as 750,000 homes and 40,000 vehicles could be affected, with losses topping $20 billion. As of Friday morning, some areas in the hurricane’s path had already seen two feet of rain. 

Even before the storm abates, Aerial is able to estimate preliminary damage using radar satellite imagery that provides real-time damage data with regard to items such as flood levels, Kallman said. Data from these images can be compared with pre-storm images and data such as elevation and water level information. Then, when the clouds clear, images from optical satellites are combined with analytics to generate a full damage report within hours. Imagery from Airbus satellites is provided to government agencies at no charge under international convention. Drones are flown on areas that require a more detailed look.  

Drones can be operated over a hurricane damage area, even one covered by a temporary flight restriction (TFR), with prior approval, thanks to a streamlined FAA approval process that only takes a few hours, Kallman said. Obviously, operators need to exercise discretion, he said. “If you want to fly at 200 feet in a residential area where they are not flying medevac operations then it is probably no factor. But if you wanted to fly near where there are life-saving operations, there is no way you should get anywhere near that.”  

Kallman said Aerial started standing up its team for Hurricane Florence last weekend at its headquarters in Atlanta, brought in more flight operations staff, and began contacting its drone operating partners and its customers. 

“We started reaching out to our existing customers that use our aerial imaging and software tools—insurance and utility companies—and every hour we’re getting new requests with regard to potential claims or power infrastructure. We’re passing that along to our satellite tasking team. They’re aware of when that satellite will pass over and we can optimize to everyone’s needs,” Kallman said.  

Aerial does not operate its own drones. Airbus Aerial currently employs a full-time staff of 30 and Kallman said they are mostly software engineers. Because it has them under contract at fixed rates, Aerial typically does not pay storm premiums to its drone operators, although Kallman said that he has heard about some opportunistic pricing by some drone companies looking to take advantage of the hurricane. “People are absolutely price gouging,” he said.  

While mega-storms and wildfires for insurance and utility customers constitute some of Airbus Aerial’s more high-profile work, Kallman said the company has also moved into more diverse applications such as monitoring lake levels for hydropower companies and detecting standing water and dirty pools as part of mosquito-abatement programs for city and county governments.