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Florida UAS Exercise a Rehearsal for Disaster Drone Teams

The UAS Drones Disaster and Public Safety Exercise, a full-scale exercise at Florida International University, gave local drone teams airtime and inexperienced pilots a chance to work in a simulated disaster scenario.

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The objective of the Second Annual UAS Drones Disaster and Public Safety Exercise in Miami was to provide realistic scenarios during which to test and assess the capabilities of first responder drone teams.

The event, coordinated by the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT) and held at Florida International University July 12-13, provided a full-scale exercise for agencies such as the Miami Beach Fire Department to exercise its drone teams.

“I use it for a variety of reasons,” said Juan Ramón Mestas, deputy chief of the Miami Beach Fire Department and also the emergency manager there. “In this exercise, part of it was to get our pilots who didn’t have a lot of experience out there in a structured environment whereby they could sit there and actually fly the drones in simulated scenarios where there are other, more experienced pilots flying with them.”

The event featured UAS situations including
•    Island/maritime search operation
•    Aerial reconnaissance
•    Damage assessment
•    Situation awareness live streaming
•    Mapping
•    Force protection overwatch.

“We’ve already seen the potential that drones offer to help change the landscape surrounding emergency management,” said Christopher Todd, executive director of AIRT, in a statement. “UAS flight teams now need to hone and demonstrate their capabilities to respond effectively to real-world incidents.”

The exercise allows for pilots to fly when other aircraft are in the air and to develop those partnerships that need to be developed before a real crisis occurs. “What I try to do is establish relationships before we get to the event, so people have each other’s mobile phones and know each other by name,” Mestas said. But the simple things, too, need to be rehearsed, things like having enough water on a hot day.

Last year at the inaugural event, Mestas had his experienced pilots flying missions that included a search and rescue over a lake. This year, they kept it simple.

“When you get deployed, it’s not just getting out there and flying the thing, it’s getting out there, setting up a base on which to work, knowing for example, that you have to have food, a generator, sometimes you take too much and sometimes you take too little,” Mestas said.

“It was hot, it was humid, and it reminded everyone that successful emergency response operations involve much more than fancy technology,” said Justine Hollingshead, the chief of staff and assistant vice chancellor at North Carolina State University, which participated as well. “The FIU exercise provided the type of environment for drone operations that you just won’t experience in a table-top simulation.”

The heat and humidity meant that pilots had to not only monitor crews but their equipment as well. “While we strive for technical proficiency in executing the UAS mission, we also want to ensure our flight teams are making the right decisions while operating in these extreme conditions,” said Lt. Mark Moore, deputy emergency manager for the Miami Fire Department, in a statement.
This event is considered unique in that drone flights are the object of each scenario rather than an ancillary element.