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.

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