During the hostage situation at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna in February, the scene was assessed via drones, the the small flying machines that have been making a big impact in Delaware.
The standoff took place just days before the official Feb. 16 launch of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency’s sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft System) program that began training pilots in August 2016, in conjunction with the UAS Academy in Virginia.
The program offers the service to members of Delaware’s public safety agencies, including EMT, police and fire departments.
Paige Fitzgerald, a terrorism preparedness planner with DEMA, is the sUAS Program Administrator. She says that as drones have become more and more economically accessible, they’ve been used in applications such as environmental mapping, saving the state a significant amount of money.
“The cost of the aircraft has come down a lot,” she said. Not only that, the use of drones is less expensive — sometimes dramatically less expensive — than other, older methods, and puts the people who work in public safety in less physical danger.
The program had a major FEMA-funded project in December 2016: a site inspection on Pea Patch Island. “We performed the inspection along with DelDOT at a fraction of the cost of a traditional inspection,” Fitzgerald said.
Other public safety uses for drones include search and rescue and assessing the aftermath of a disaster, inspecting damage on large structures, and locating chemical leaks — all jobs that, like bomb-disposal (a task now commonly performed by remotely controlled land robots), put human beings in risky situations and are extremely time sensitive.
For example: “After a disaster, the roads might be blocked off,” Fitzgerald said. In such situations, a drone can easily access areas that are difficult to get to and assess the situation.
Drones connected with the DEMA program also provided police air support in the recent barricade standoff in Middletown, and completed inspections of FEMA-funded repairs to the Gordon’s Pond Trail at Cape Henlopen State Park and a stormwater outfall pipe in Rehoboth.
With the stakes as potentially high as they are, the DEMA sUAS Program has high standards. In addition to the required FAA-107 Drone Pilot Certification, pilots are required to complete monthly currency training, ensuring that all agency pilots perform at least three take offs and landings, in addition to a set list of maneuvers.
As of now, the sUAS program has five certified pilots and one in training, with many more anticipated as the program grows.
“There are applications we haven’t even thought of yet,” Fitzgerald said.
To learn more about DEMA and the sUAS Program, go to dema.delaware.gov.-30-
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