Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Drone team deploys to assist in Surfside response operation

The CDRP team plans flights on July 4, 2021, prior to the demolition of the remainder of the Champlain Towers South: Ph.D. researcher Austin Bush, CDRP Director David Merrick and researcher Justin Adams (far right) with Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Humanitarian Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

The Florida State University Center for Disaster Risk Policy (CDRP) has deployed to Surfside, Fla., to assist with assessment and recovery efforts after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium on June 24.

The State of Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (FL-TF1) requested the help of CDRP’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) team because the team has the ability to rapidly deliver incident maps to urban search and rescue teams through the use of UAS, aka drones. In less than 30 minutes, the team can fly, process and upload the latest information from a disaster scene. This improves responder effectiveness and increases responder safety. 

The team deployed to Surfside, June 25, with three members: CDRP Director David Merrick, researcher and geography doctoral student Austin Bush, and CDRP staff researcher Justin Adams. Another CDRP researcher, Rayne Hawkins, joined the team a few days later.  

Since arriving on the scene, the CDRP UAS team, working closely with other drone teams from state and local agencies, has flown more than 200 missions, captured more than 28,000 images of the site and created almost 700GB of data and information, including digital maps that could then be downloaded to the phone or tablet of a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program member. This near real-time intelligence was intended to be a game-changer for hurricane response, but the Champlain Towers collapse provided a tragic test case for the new process. 

A digital map of the collapsed condo tower created by the CDRP UAS team.

“Digital maps are not new, but the speed of creation and the ease of use in dedicated USAR apps is a recent development,” Merrick said. “We worked in conjunction with FEMA’s USAR program to leverage commercial off-the-shelf software to quickly capture, process and create these data maps.”

Thanks to this development, disaster response teams can work off the latest data, rather than being dependent on maps that are weeks or months old. This “disaster intelligence” can mean the difference between success and failure. 

CDRP has previously brought their expertise to bear on responses to natural disasters, including Hurricane Harvey in Texas in August 2017 and Hurricane Michael on the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. 

In 2017, the CDRP’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security program was awarded its first National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant for collaborative research with Texas A&M University’s Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue team to process and catalog media collected during their deployments for hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

RAPID grants are provided by the NSF to fund rapid response research on the impact of federal investments in science and technology programs and to advance the scientific understanding of science policy. FSU CDRP is collaborating with Texas A&M again on a RAPID grant that will provide more knowledge of how data can be created and utilized by first responders.  

“Further research like this will allow for cost-effective and useful digital tools after a disaster,” Merrick said.

FSU CDRP is housed within Askew School in the university’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. For more information, visit this link.