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Drones Descend On Houston To Help Assess Damage From Harvey


Hurricane Harvey has been called unprecedented in its flooding and destruction along the Texas coast. And it also provides an unprecedented opportunity for drones. About a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration eased restrictions on professional drone use. And now those drones and their operators have descended on the greater Houston area to help assess the damage. Aarian Marshall wrote about these drones for Wired. Welcome to the program.

AARIAN MARSHALL: Hi there, Robert. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And what kind of damage is being evaluated these days through drones?

MARSHALL: There's actually a lot of reasons that drones can be used after Hurricane Harvey - infrastructure, agriculture to transportation, things like roads and bridges. And then also to evaluate insurance claims on people's personal homes.

SIEGEL: So who's actually using the drones to assess the damage?

MARSHALL: Well, in the wake of the hurricane, there were actually 43 different organizations that got special authorizations from the FAA to operate drones in the area. The railroad got one. Also, a number of media organizations got them. And then also some insurance companies were allowed to go in and start doing some inspections, as well as oil and gas companies as well to make sure everything is OK there, there's no oil or gas leaking. That would be very bad for the folks who live around the Houston area.

SIEGEL: Let's focus on the use of the drones by insurance companies to assess damage. How useful is a drone, actually? It can't see inside buildings to see what the damage is.

MARSHALL: Sure, that's definitely true. But drones are actually very, very helpful for insurance companies. I spoke to some folks over at Allstate insurance who are using drones to evaluate for the first time in this - for a disaster of this severity. So drones are very nimble. They're very fast. They're less dangerous than putting people up on roofs or putting helicopters in the air. And they can actually - thanks to the really advanced cameras that you can mount on drones these days, you can zoom in and look at the damage to even a specific shingle. It can get that specific. So what they can also do is relay a live feed over to claims adjusters who are sitting in their offices. So hopefully the folks over there in Houston, in the Houston area will start getting insurance money paid out as soon as possible.

SIEGEL: Typically how big are these drones that are being used over Houston?

MARSHALL: The drones are generally less than 55 pounds. So they're not gigantic. They're not those military predator drones you might see on TV. But they're not that tiny either. If one fell on you it would hurt, which is why there are professionals who have to take really intense pilot tests to operate them.

SIEGEL: You're describing a - what could be a great breakthrough for the use of drones. Does the magnitude, does the number of drones in the sky pose any particular challenges?

MARSHALL: Definitely. It will be an interesting test for the FAA's regulations for small drone operation, which they rolled out almost exactly a year ago. Those rules say that drones have to stay below 400 feet in the air, you have to be able to see the drone when you're flying it, and you can't fly over densely populated areas. So it'll be interesting to see what happens in Texas and whether these rules are really working out. I know the FAA is working very closely with the people on the ground there. So they're definitely monitoring the situation. So we'll see what happens.

SIEGEL: Aarian Marshall, a reporter for Wired. Thanks.

MARSHALL: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.