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When Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean and the US south-east coast last month, lives were lost, homes were destroyed and vital infrastructure was critically damaged. High winds and heavy rain left approximately 13 million Florida residents without power. Although drone pilots have grown notorious for flying too close to natural disasters in the past and grounding emergency services as a result, they have been working alongside local authorities in Florida to get things back online.
A small number of drone pilots have consistently managed to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Interrupting emergency efforts to put out forest fires from California to Colorado is one obvious example. It’s bad publicity for a burgeoning industry in which regulations are evolving all the time. But there’s plenty out there that proves drones are capable of having a much more positive impact on society.
In a hurricane situation, damaged infrastructure can slow down rescue efforts and make it difficult for emergency teams to get around and communicate with each other. Getting roads open and people reconnected is always a priority.
Ryan English is co-founder and CEO of Flymotion Unmanned Systems, a drone services company based in Florida. He leads a team of pilots that has been working flat out since hurricane Irma arrived in the Sunshine State. Speaking with Internet of Business, he paints a picture confirming that drone technology has been vital to getting infrastructure back online.
“Pretty much everything in society today relies on utilities and infrastructure, from power to data to networks,” he said. “We’re a critical piece of getting those systems back online, from damage assessments to insurance inspections.”
Pre-deploying and the challenge of predicting nature
The sole advantage of being Florida-based when the storms rolled in was that the devastation didn’t come as a surprise. As the remnants of Harvey moved further inland, Irma was tracked as it grew in stature and drifted across the Atlantic. To an extent, the Flymotion team was able to predict its path and pre-deploy teams appropriately.
“This was the largest pre-deployment of UAS (Unmanned aerial systems) in response to a natural disaster, which is monumental,” said English. 22 separate Flymotion teams were deployed in locations across Florida as the state braced for impact.
But even then, the hurricane was unpredictable. “In any kind of disaster situation, you can pre-plan as much as you want but it’s an unknown situation. When Irma was on the way it was going from a category three storm to a four and a five, so the potential impact and the way it was moving was unknown.”
The use of drones allowed FLymotion’s inspection teams to work quickly and conduct more than 500 missions in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. The number is increasing daily and now stands at over 650.
Interestingly, these missions aren’t only being carried out by the rugged, weather-proof drones you might envisage. Instead, Flymotion has been utilizing DJI’s entire product catalogue, including the family-friendly drones launched by the industry’s leading manufacturer with beginners in mind.
These range from the $ 500 palm-sized Spark right up to the Hollywood-grade Inspire 2. Even DJI’s consumer-focused drones have obstacle avoidance, autonomous flight modes and high definition cameras, so this variety has allowed English and his team to be versatile and adapt to the mission at hand.
And what of the response to the aerial response? Will the reputation of drone pilots flying in disaster zones improve now that their value has been proven?
English certainly thinks so. “I think Hurricane Harvey and Irma have really changed the viewpoint in a positive way. Undoubtedly, drones expedited the recovery efforts in many ways. We’ve been able to showcase the technology and prove how well it can work.”
Speaking with Internet of Business, corporate communication director at DJI, Adam Lisberg, agreed that this was the first major disaster on US soil in which drones could be effectively deployed.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were a major turning point for how drones have been able to assist with rescue and recovery operations following a disaster,” he said. “Thanks to the increasingly wide deployment of drones around the country, as well as the Part 107 rules that allow professional drone pilots to be certified relatively easily, these were the first major disasters in America where drones could play a key role in the response.”
As highlighted by Flymotion’s ability to pre-deploy teams across the state, drones have proven to be a valuable, versatile tool that can be up in the air in no time at all. “Drones allow professionals to do their tasks safer, faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost, by providing a convenient aerial perspective and the ability to quickly gather aerial data so it can be processed and analyzed,” said Lisberg.
“In a rescue situation, they allow crews to assess damage and look for survivors from the sky far more easily than from land or water,” he added.
Aside from being the original manufacturer for the majority of aerial hardware deployed in the aftermath of hurricane Irma, DJI didn’t play a direct role in the response. Instead, the company supported its partners on the ground, and “provided equipment to nine established search-and-rescue organizations we’ve worked with before, to help them as they responded to immediate rescue and recovery needs.”
“This included almost 200 batteries, since finding reliable power sources to recharge batteries quickly became one of their top priorities. We also provided immediate technical assistance for team members who needed help keeping their drones flying in difficult conditions.”
Flymotion’s Ryan English predicts many more months of recovery efforts ahead in Florida. Just as drone deliveries are being pioneered by companies intent on flying medical supplies from one location to another, public opinion may be further swayed by their benefits in the direst of circumstances.
And those are just the major hurricanes (defined as Category 3 or above) of 2017 that have made landfall. Another major hurricane, Jose, threatened some already ravaged Caribbean islands before taking a turn to to the north. So far this year, there have been seven hurricanes in total, and 13 named storms.
If those numbers make the 2017 hurricane season seem particularly intense, that’s because it is.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization has a formal definition for an “extremely active” Atlantic hurricane season. For that to happen, storms have to generate a certain amount of accumulated cyclone energy — a measure of storm intensity, duration, and frequency. There also have to meet two out of these three conditions: 13 or more named storms, 7 or more hurricanes, and 3 or more major hurricanes.
Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, specializes in Atlantic hurricane forecasts and tracks cyclone energy. He said on Twitter that by September 20, we’d already met the definition of “extremely active,” with enough cyclone energy and all three of the above conditions checked off.
Hurricane season isn’t over until November 30, so there’s almost certainly more to come.
So why do storms keep coming one after another?
In many ways, 2017 has had ideal conditions for a lot of big, powerful storms, several experts told Business Insider.
Two main factors have allowed these massive storms to form: the lack of an El Niño system, and the fact that the Atlantic is unusually warm.
El Niño systems generate particularly warm temperatures in the Pacific, which tends to create high wind shear in the Atlantic. James Belanger, a senior meteorological scientist with The Weather Company (the group behind the Weather Channel and Weather Underground), told Business Insider that wind shear “rips storms apart” before they develop into massive systems.
But this year, we’ve had what are referred to as “ENSO-neutral” conditions so far, meaning that there hasn’t been any El Niño or La Niña system whose wind shear could prevent hurricanes.
At the same time, the North Atlantic has been “quite warm,” Belanger said. Warm water helps storms intensify since the weather systems absorb heat energy from the water. As NASA puts it, “the more heat energy that goes in, the more vigorously a weather system can churn.”
Warm ocean temperatures in the Caribbean allowed this year’s storms to rapidly gain power. Maria, the most recent, is likely to set a record for being the most rapidly intensifying hurricane ever measured.
Two combined factors affect on Atlantic temperatures: ocean heat content (a measure of heat stored by the ocean), and sea surface temperatures (measured at the top layer of the ocean). There’s no simple explanation for this year’s high surface temperatures and ocean heat content, according to Belanger. One possibility is that weaker trade winds and wind speeds in the Atlantic have led to less evaporation, which would normally cool the ocean more.
Along with raising sea temperatures, climate change also causes sea-level rise — which makes cities more vulnerable to the storm surge that comes with hurricanes. Plus, global warming is expected to lead to a higher concentration of atmospheric water vapor and heavier rainfall. Intense rainfall can be devastating, as Harvey showed in Houston and Maria has shown in Puerto Rico.
Climate change didn’t cause any of the storms that we’ve seen this year, and we don’t yet know how the changing climate affected these specific hurricanes. But climate scientists have warned that the world could see more storms as temperatures rise. If nothing else, this season could serve as an example of what we’ll see in the future.
“There is evidence that we are emerging from an era of messy meteorological data, where we were blind to warming seas strengthening hurricanes because the really damaging ones were rare,” meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote for Grist. “If that’s true, weather historians may look to this year as the beginning of a frightening new phase of superstorms.”
Yet another explanation for the warmer Atlantic Ocean could be changes in high and low pressure systems that caused surface temperatures to fluctuate, according to Michael Ventrice, a meteorological scientist at The Weather Company. Ventrice said a current called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) may also have played a role — that current is slow moving, and changes conditions on a 20 to 50 year scale. At the start of the 2017 season, meteorologists were unsure whether the AMO was still in a warm phase, according to NOAA. But if so, that could help explain this season’s activity as well.
A Record Breaking Year
Whatever the reason for 2017’s seemingly endless bombardment of hurricanes, we have certainly seen records get broken this year.
This is the first time in known history that the Atlantic has had two storms with 150+ mph winds raging at the same time: Irma and Jose.
Maria went from a tropical depression to a Category 5 storm in two-and-a-half days, a speed that Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, told the Washington Post is most likely the record for fastest intensification in the Atlantic.
This year we could also very likely set a record for cyclone energy generated in September, according to Phil Klotzbach.
But this season isn’t the worst we’ve ever seen, as much as it might seem that way. That distinction belongs to 2005.
That year, there were so many named storms that we ran through the whole alphabetical list of names (the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used) and then had to run through the Greek alphabet, using Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta. Fifteen storms in 2005 were hurricanes, with seven being major hurricanes.
Five storm names were retired that year because of the devastation the hurricanes caused: Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan, and Wilma. We will most likely have at least three names retired after 2017: Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Based on the Atlantic hurricane activity so far this year, we’re not quite on pace to surpass 2005. But as Molly Rubin recently wrote in Quartz, if you look at both the Atlantic and Pacific simultaneously, the world is on pace for a new record number of named storms overall, outpacing 2012 and 2005.
After Maria dissipates, we’re likely to enter a quieter period in the Atlantic, according to Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground. But there’s still reason to watch for new storms developing in the Caribbean, since water temperatures remain warm.
And even if we have a quiet week or two, there’s plenty more time for storms to come. Hurricane season peaks on September 10, but the period of peak activity lasts though the middle of October. The season isn’t over until November 30.
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