(Source: Fotloog)
Feds make sure no good deed goes unpunished

To say the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is oft maligned may be a bit of an understatement.  But agency certainly at times goes out of the way to earn its reputation.

For example during the recent floods in Boulder, Colo. last week, FEMA terminated under threat of arrest a local company's efforts to provide real-time maps of the flood damage with no explanation.

CLMax Engineering LLC looked to chip in to the release effort with its Falcon UAV.  Now normally this might sound like a pretty bad idea, but Falcon UAVs are not only U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved (aka federally approved to fly in the U.S.), they also are experts in using their onboard GPS and cameras to create 3D maps to produce real-time maps of a disaster-stricken region in a mere half hour.

According to a company blog, CLMax looked to offer the use of the fliers -- for free -- to the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Incident Management Team (IMT) to help coordinate assessment and rescue efforts.  CLMax expected this to make for some good PR.

Falcon UAV
A Falcon UAV is launched on Thursday [Image Source: CLMax Engineering]

Indeed, for the first three days the fliers chipped in.  On Thursday the weather was so bad that the U.S. National Guard was ground, and only Falcon UAV was able to brave the pounding storm.  CLMax worked closely with the EOC, who in turn fed in instructions to prevent its flier from hindering National Guard efforts; for example on Friday the Falcon UAVs were temporarily ground while National Guard choppers made rescue efforts.
Falcon UAV Map
One of the maps produced by the Falcon flier -- before it was cut off by FEMA.
[Image Source: CLMax Engineering]

But despite after three days of great success, things took a bizarre turn.  CLMax recalls:

Early Saturday morning Falcon UAV was heading up to Lyons to complete a damage assessment mapping flight when we received a call from our Boulder EOC point of contact who notified us that FEMA had taken over operations and our request to fly drones was not only denied but more specifically we were told by FEMA that anyone flying drones would be arrested.  Not being one to bow to federal bureaucrats we still went up to Lyons to do a site survey for how we can conduct a mission in the near future to provide an adequate damage assessment to this storm raveged community.

While we were up there we noticed that Civil Air Patrol and private aircraft were authorized to fly over the small town tucked into the base of Rockies.  Unfortunately due to the high terrain around Lyons and large turn radius of manned aircraft they were flying well out of a useful visual range and didn't employ cameras or live video feed to support the recovery effort.  Meanwhile we were grounded on the Lyons high school football field with two Falcons that could have mapped the entire town in less than 30 minutes with another few hours to process the data providing a near real time map of the entire town.

Again, to clarify a couple points:
  • CLMax was perfectly willing to ground its fliers as long as necessary while FEMA and/or National Guard craft were in the air
  • CLMax was charging the government nothing for this free service
  • CLMax had completed three days of successful support efforts with no incidents
FEMA's response seems nothing short of boneheaded and baffling.  Moreover why FEMA felt it necessary to threaten to arrest engineers from a reputable federal contractor who provides disaster relief UAVs is unfathomable.

FEMA has offered no comment yet explaining why it would make this bizarre decision.  It's a particularly disappointing outcome as drones get a bad rap due to the kinds of operations that citizens fear the government is doing -- spying, armed attacks on "terrorists", etc. -- yet here is a company that wants to put drones to a nobler use, yet it can't because of bumbling, mess of an agency.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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