Austin fire officials hope to expand use of drones in emergencies


More drones could be flying over Austin to assist firefighters during wildfires, high-rise fires and floods, the city’s fire officials are hoping.

Drones performed about a dozen searches near Wimberley last month as emergency crews struggled to locate residents trapped by rising floodwaters.

The recent floods in Wimberley gave emergency crews a chance to test the use of the small, remotely controlled aircraft, which can fly up to 400 feet above the ground. Austin firefighters are working with Gene Robinson, a 59-year-old drone manufacturer and member of the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department, in hopes of creating a program that will let them use drones of their own.

“This is all about saving lives. It’s about taking technology that is in existence today and plugging that into our missions,” said Coitt Kessler, program manager with the Austin Fire Department’s robotic emergency deployment team.

Robinson, a Wimberley native and former pilot, began building unmanned aircraft systems about a decade ago out of a Wimberley warehouse. He has created more than a dozen models of fixed-wing aircraft and provided assistance to emergency personnel for free.

After the floods, the Federal Aviation Administration gave him the green light within days to fly his drones to look for residents. The permission process usually takes more than six months.

He said the federal agency was very cooperative and allowed him to operate the aircraft along seven miles of the Blanco River. With a 10-pixel camera, the aircraft took more than a hundred aerial photos of the flooded area.

“We were able to go where manned aircraft couldn’t,” Robinson said.

Austin firefighters are now allowed to train with drones in a controlled environment, but there’s a lenghty process ahead. Along with training and a federal permit, firefighters need to gain trust from the community before residents can see drones during emergency situations.

“This is something we need everyone to understand and feel comfortable with it,” Kessler said.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

FORECAST: Austin gets brief relief from freeze with high near 36
FORECAST: Austin gets brief relief from freeze with high near 36

Wednesday forecast for Austin: Congratulations! We survived Austin’s coldest night so far this winter. But a brief reprieve from the freeze is expected this afternoon, as temperatures temporarily rise above 32 degrees, albeit to a high of 36. According to National Weather Service data, overnight temperatures at Camp Mabry, Austin’s...
ERCOT asks Central Texas to conserve energy amid frigid temperatures 
ERCOT asks Central Texas to conserve energy amid frigid temperatures 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas urged Central Texas households and businesses to conserve energy on Wednesday because frigid temperatures have put an additional strain on the state’s power grid. ERCOT officials said they expect a significantly high load of electricity demand, particularly between the hours of 7 and 8 a.m. Plummeting...
Georgia man who set ex-girlfriend on fire sentenced to life in prison
Georgia man who set ex-girlfriend on fire sentenced to life in prison

A Georgia man who poured gasoline on his ex-girlfriend and set her on fire was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole, according to the Clayton County District Attorney’s office.  Mervin Woodard, 40, was found guilty of multiple felonies in the 2016 crime, which left Melita Curtis in a coma for two weeks. Curtis was...
Who is White House physician Ronny L. Jackson?
Who is White House physician Ronny L. Jackson?

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson became physician to the president in 2013, when he was appointed by President Barack Obama. It’s a position that has been around since George Washington became president, but it did not become official until Congress created the title in 1928.  Jackson is the 18th person to hold the position, which is...
Andrew White outpaces Lupe Valdez in Democrats’ money race for governor
Andrew White outpaces Lupe Valdez in Democrats’ money race for governor

Houston businessman Andrew White, making his first run for elective office, far outpaced former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in the first few weeks of fundraising in their late-starting campaigns to become the Democratic nominee to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott, who has set a Texas fundraising record in his bid for a second term. White reported raising...
More Stories