Miami-based Christopher Todd is one of those guys who is excited for the coming storm. He’s spent the last few years working with federal and state agencies to help integrate drones into hurricane response planning, and demonstrating how drones can assist in disasters around the world. When Dorian hits this weekend, Todd and his team will be ready.
Todd founded Airborne Response, a drone services firm focused on missions for a range of enterprise and government customers including telecomm, critical infrastructure, and disaster response, in 2016. “As we started going down that path, we started seeing opportunities with STEM, education, training, disaster relief… we decided to start a non-profit group that would allow us to work with some of these great organizations,” says Todd. That was the origin of AIRT, a volunteer group of flyers helping disaster response and public safety departments benefit from aerial data.
Todd believes that skilled pilots are critical to successful drone missions, and that’s a core principal of AIRT – developing a volunteer corps of highly trained and expert pilots to help communities around the world. “We wanted to start a global ecosystem of drone pilots that could help us get eyes in the sky for diasters,” Todd explains. “Some disasters, like hurricanes, you get advance notice – but sometimes, like with earthquakes, you have no warning.”
That’s why being prepared in advance is all important to a response team. “It’s all about the relationships that we’ve been able to develop, and it’s about training and working together and practicing before the incident happens,” Todd says. “First responders don’t have time to get to know you during a disaster. They need someone that they can trust, and they need to know what to expect.”
Todd’s team of volunteer pilots go through training on the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is the system used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so that they understand the terminology and can communicate with the team during disaster response efforts. In the midst of a mission, he says, “FEMA can’t afford to take the time to bring you up to speed.” When the disaster comes, Todd’s team will be part of the efforts to gather aerial data and integrate it into the existing response framework – getting good data from critical locations and distributing it to the stakeholders who need it most.
AIRT isn’t only about integrating into disaster response efforts. They’re trying to help communities around the world build their resources and get maximum benefit from drone technology. “We use the term public safety broadly,” says Todd. “When something happens, it goes into the whole community. Everyone has to circle the wagons during a disaster – it’s one of those situations where everyone has to get together.”
In addition to the volunteer corps of pilots, AIRT sponsors a number of programs to address public safety needs with UAS. The DRONERESPONDERS program is one of the fastest growing AIRT programs. Led by retired fire chief Charles Warner, DRONERESPONDERS serves as an advocacy and resource group for public safety agencies. “Historically, fewer than 1% of public safety organizations had access to airborne resources,” explains Todd. “Now the availability of small UAS is revolutionizing many organizations – we’re trying to create a structure where everyone can learn from one another and best take advantage of the resources.” Through DRONERESPONDERS, the group helps agencies find the training and information they need to use drones in their communities. “The overwhelming support that we’ve gotten from the DRONERESPONDERS program has been great to see and we think it’s exciting,” says Todd.
AIRT APD is a program based in Bogota Colombia. There, the group is helping to train firefighters to use drone technology. AIRT FIU (Florida International University), is a relationship between AIRT and FIU’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness: AIRT is helping to train first responders on drone technology.
Additionally, AIRT offers conferences for first responders and pilots: DRONERESPONDERS will host the U.S. Public Safety UAS Summit at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas this October. They’ll hold a disaster relief conference in February, and a summit in Los Angeles in August of 2020. (For event details, check back here.). The team also produces data sets and reports that help public safety organizations develop their programs. A recent survey highlighted the challenges of starting new programs: a new public safety sector survey will help drill deeper into the needs of different sectors in the vertical.
It’s an ambitious program for a core volunteer group of 16 people with daytime jobs in the emergency management sector. The organization hopes to bring on more staff as funding becomes available through partnerships and donations, and Todd is optimistic. “As we create the story and start doing good things, the rest will fall into place,” he says.
This weekend, AIRT will be part of the story of Hurricane Dorian – and DRONELIFE wishes all of the responders and volunteers safe flight and good luck.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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