Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are everywhere. Browse through any current news publication and you’re almost certain to find an article about a near-miss with a commercial airliner or possible introduction of proposed new Federal Aviation Administration rules.
One way or another, though, UAVs are securing an increasingly important role in our society.
These machines have become so inexpensive and easy to operate that they’re beginning to flood the skies. While privacy and safety concerns lead the fight against this emerging technology, the ability to have rapidly deployable eyes-in-the-sky unquestionably can provide vital assistance to first responders in emergency and disaster responses.
But these eyes-in-the-sky are just the beginning as more technology is developed and integrated. UAV platforms will also be capable of providing clearer situational awareness to those who need it most.
Advances in technology improve situational awareness for first responders
In order to conduct an effective response to an emergency, accurate information must be immediately available to responders and decision-makers. A decision based on bad information carries with it a huge opportunity cost. On the other hand, decisions made with information that is 100 percent correct, but 24 hours late, is almost as useless as incorrect information. So, the question that needs to be addressed is, how does a first responder get an accurate picture of a rapidly changing scenario so he can make the most effective decision?
The time it takes to make a decision often effects the outcome. With programmable flight plans, streaming live video and the ability to be rapidly deployed, response teams using UAVs are able to observe scenarios immediately. This reduces the amount of time it takes to gather the necessary situational awareness in order to make an informed decision.
With UAVs becoming so simple to operate, responders can now have an eye-in-the-sky within minutes, providing an overall view of an event or natural disaster. This UAV technology — paired with some of the ground-breaking tactical applications — can, and in some cases already do, provide first responders on the ground with all the same information as a command center.
Applications such as the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) developed by the US Air Force Research Lab, have made it easier than before to have an entire suite of situational awareness tools on a personal cell phone. A response team equipped with nothing more than their mobile phones and a couple UAVs are capable of knowing more about the surrounding area than ever before.
Interagency cooperation: large and mobile ad hoc networks
There is a great deal of paperwork and procedures to go through for an agency to legally fly a UAV and reap the benefits of this rapidly emerging technology. The time and cost to wade through this process is often prohibitive for a small agency or department pushing forward implementing a UAV program. If there was an environment allowing multiple agencies to utilize the same network and tools, more people would have access to the capabilities and information provided by a UAV.
Mobile Ad hoc Networks(MANETs) spanning large geographical areas are able to maintain connectivity to UAVs as they cover great distances past traditional line-of-site operations while still providing live data and video feeds. These MANETs are gaining popularity because of their ability to integrate with so many other types of technologies.
Basically, a MANET is a self-configuring network where the individual units make up the network itself and therefore can be extended as needed. The ability to have “line-of-site” connectivity without actual line-of-site is an incredible new capability. Some areas of the United States are already networked for these scenarios. Specifically, some of the UAV test sites will use MANET technology to monitor exactly where each and every UAV is in real time. These networks are not limited to UAVs — manned assets are also capable of utilizing the network to provide real-time data to command centers.
With this infrastructure in place, how foolish would it be to have an asset with all the capability in the air, but not yet be able to assist in a scenario happening in close proximity?
UAVs are here to stay. And while plenty of people have their doubts about their utility in law enforcement and emergency situations, it’s nevertheless obvious that the benefits outweigh the negatives.
By utilizing this new technology, we, as a society, will be able to react more efficiently to unfolding emergency scenarios, as real time situational awareness is the key to responding effectively to any emergency. Interagency cooperation creates a fast-track to having these networks available, and provides tools like UAVs to be used to their full potential.
Marcus Tooker is field operations manager at Avwatch, Inc., a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business that harnesses innovative and proven technologies to support, enhance and train federal, state and local government agencies in support of homeland security and disaster recovery.
Tooker also wrote the report, Fantasy Toys for Emergency Responders: A Valuable Asset Emerges From the World of Flying Cars and Robot, in the June/July, 2015, issue of Homeland Security Today.