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Drones to be mobilized for earthquake response

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USA Today Network
Tom Charlier, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal

1:55 a.m. ET Feb. 23, 2017

MEMPHIS — Amid the confusion and pandemonium that would follow a major earthquake, Memphis-area emergency-response officials plan to deploy drones to check for collapsed buildings and bridges, locate fires and guide rescue crews.

Toward that end, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, a Memphis-based agency charged with helping prepare an eight-state region for temblors on the New Madrid Seismic Zone, has begun developing a network of licensed drone pilots to aid in quake-response efforts. This week, CUSEC will convene an initial meeting of prospective participants.

“We’re going to use their insights into determining how to build this (network),” said Jim Wilkinson, executive director of CUSEC.

The use of drones following disasters is not new. For instance, when a sinkhole opened up beneath the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., three years ago, drones descended into the cavern to relay images of the vehicles that fell into it.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, the remote-controlled vehicles would be especially useful, officials say, because information would be limited by disruptions in communication systems.

“These are no-notice events. It takes time to figure out what occurred,” Wilkinson said. The possible applications of drones “would be endless,” he added.

Christine Powell, a professor at the University of Memphis’ Center for Earthquake Research and Information, is working with CUSEC on the drone initiative. She said that amid the “chaos” following a major quake it would be difficult, without drones, to know which bridges and roads are impassable and where people might be trapped in damaged buildings or threatened by fires.

“The communications system will probably not be that great,” Powell said. “Usually, you’re down to satellite phones and ham radios.”

The video transmitted by drones could be “invaluable in saving lives,” she said.

The New Madrid zone is a zig-zagging network of faults that generally follow the Mississippi River from near Cairo, Ill., into Eastern Arkansas. In late 1811 and early 1812, the zone produced a series of some of the most powerful quakes known to have struck east of the Rockies. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests the major temblors occur in the New Madrid every 500 or so years, although scientists aren’t sure what causes them.

Any drone network established to respond to quakes would have to adhere to new federal regulations. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration issued rules requiring licenses for commercial drone pilots, and the agency also prohibits commercial drone flights inside controlled air space without its approval.

Wesley Flint, a drone operator who is participating in Thursday’s meeting, said officials would need to either negotiate a prior agreement with the FAA or have in place a system to obtain expedited approval for flights in controlled air space after a quake.

But once deployed, drones could transmit high-definition images of quake damage, said Flint, owner-operator of Precision Aerial Imaging in Olive Branch. “As long as we have some communication, I could send them (emergency-responders) live footage,” he said.

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