Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath are illustrating the value and perils of drones.
Remote-controlled aircraft have been promoted for years for conducting dangerous missions such as inspecting damaged and flooded buildings more safely than people can.
The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized at least 43 drone operators in Harvey’s wake, for recovery efforts and for news organizations covering it, including the USA TODAY Network.
But the FAA has also prohibited private drone pilots from flying in a broad area around Houston to avoid areas where emergency aircraft such as rescue helicopters are plucking people from rooftops or searching for survivors. Drones spotted near firefighting aircraft in California last year had prompted the planes and helicopters to land to avoid the risk of collisions.
The FAA is “targeting the responsible members of the various communities who are responding to this type of catastrophe, whether it’s the first responders, the insurance industry or the news media, said Mark Dombroff, a partner at Denton’s aviation-law practice. “This is an object lesson in the utility, the usefulness, the effectiveness of drones.”
The FAA typically allows people to fly drones during the day within sight of the aircraft up to 400 feet in the air and at least five miles from the closest airport. The goal is to avoid collisions with occupied plane and helicopters or damage to property on the ground.
Police and firefighters have used drones for years to inspect buildings or crash sites or search for missing persons. Commercial drone operators routinely inspect construction sites or bridges that would be more dangerous or expensive by other means.
After Harvey swept through, the FAA authorized federal, state and local officials to use drones to assess damage and prioritize recovery efforts.
Eight approvals went to a railroad company to survey damage along tracks running through Houston. Five went to oil or energy companies to look for damage to fuel tanks, power lines and other facilities. Emergency-management officials are checking damage to roads, bridges and water-treatment plants.
“It extends the first responder — it broadens the area they can look at and examine, particularly with the roads that are blocked,” Dombroff said. “You’ve also got the whole element of the insurance industry to get in there and assess the damage and the size of claims on a much quicker basis.”
But FAA also warned that drone pilots could be fined for interfering with government officials. Firefighting aircraft in California and Arizona have been grounded to avoid conflicts with drones thousands of feet in the air.
To avoid conflicts, the FAA has issued temporary flight restrictions within 100 miles of Houston through Tuesday and within 30 miles of Rosenberg through Sept. 30.
“As we are using military assets to respond and recovery, and civilian assets to respond and recovery, the potential for drone impact is a big deal,” Air Force Maj. Gen. James Witham, director of domestic operations for the National Guard, said in a Pentagon briefing Tuesday. “As much as possible, if we could keep civilian drones out of the crowded skies that are already crowded with people doing response and recovery efforts, that would certainly be helpful because those present a hazard for our crews operating those helicopters in the region.”
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group representing nearly 200,000 hobbyists, urged drone pilots to steer clear of Harvey response efforts.
“The ongoing emergency response efforts are of the utmost importance,” Rich Hanson, the group’s president, said in a statement. “We urge everyone to be careful and avoid interference with any of these crucial operations.”