ERMA – Long before Hurricane Matthew began its destructive swirl up the eastern seaboard, Cape May County’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the Division of Economic Development joined in efforts to further new drone-based technology tools designed to help first responders during significant weather events and other emergencies.
The idea originated with American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. (AATI), one of the companies that attends monthly “Innovation Forums” held here for professional drone operators and enthusiasts to swap business information and best practices.
David Yoel, AATI’s chief executive officer, has served as the county’s drone subject matter expert for two years, and the company has flown several successful drone campaigns from the Cape May County Airport, according to a release.
AATI recently partnered with Verizon to develop technology that would enable airborne long-range drones to restore cell coverage to areas where communications are knocked out after events such as a hurricane.
The drone becomes, in effect, a flying cell tower restoring cell coverage to an affected area, including critical communications links for first responders.
As a result of the county’s unique location, airspace, and growing reputation among drone professionals, Yoel asked the county whether it would host part of the technical trials here.
“Developing Cape May County as an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) hub is a significant part of our economic development strategy,” Freeholder Will Morey stated. “So, we were of course interested in the trials. Not only does a newly-developed technology have high visibility in the drone community, but the activity itself will serve the emergency management community and our commitment there is focused and strong.”
Martin “Marty” Pagliughi, county director of Emergency Management, agreed. “Being able to stay in contact with our first responders is the most important thing in an emergency,” he stated, noting the dramatic impact the proposed new technology could have on first responder missions.
After months of planning, the AATI-Verizon activities began Sept. 30, when county OEM representatives joined with additional first responder organizations, as well as personnel from state and federal agencies and the FAA Tech Center, Pomona, to conduct a “Tabletop Exercise.”
Yoel, Pagliughi, and Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton led with presentations at the exercise.
By simulating an emergency, a tabletop exercise gives organizations an opportunity to talk through steps they would take in an actual emergency and to identify additional capabilities and assets that might be helpful.
At the tabletop conducted here, first responders reviewed what they would do if a major hurricane were to hit Cape May County – including how they might use drones to help restore communications lost in the event of a hurricane impacting our coastal region.
The group also evaluated the use of real-time high resolution imagery that can be delivered over the web from a drone, including mapping of damages and identification of open roads and bridges.
“The tabletop exercise provided invaluable insights into requirements that made the following week’s flight tests successful,” Yoel stated. “There’s no better source of such information than local first responders, particularly when they’re professionals with years of real-world experience including Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s hoped that the tech tools under development and evaluation ultimately will add both to First Responders’ situational awareness, and to their tactical ability to save lives and property,” Yoel added.
Oct. 6 and 7, AATI and Verizon engineers and other personnel arrived in force at the County Airport for test flights, which were conducted successfully. Results were reported widely in national print and electronic media.
Morey noted during a press event that when county leaders and first responders were planning the activities with AATI and Verizon, hurricane response was a foremost focus.
“Ironically, just as we prepare for testing to effectively respond in the aftermath of a hurricane, we find ourselves just out of the reach of an actual hurricane on the days of flight. This testing is extremely important and puts us one major step closer to effective response.”