The Austin Fire Department Could Soon Be Using Search-and-Rescue Drones

Apr 21, 2016

The drone idles on a small runway at the Austin Radio Control Association, just east of the city. It’s got a grey body and a white nose, across which someone has painted a sinister smile. The controls are tested, and then the small aircraft takes off.

“They’re going through with their first search,” says University of Texas senior Sterling Maynard. “So what they’re going to do is they’re going to basically do a lawnmower pattern and go around and cover this entire area with the camera.”

That camera sends live video back to computers hooked up inside a small trailer aside the runway. There, four students crowd four screens, assessing data being sent back to them from the small plane in the sky. Maynard is part of a 17-student team led by Professor Armand Chaput that, on a Wednesday afternoon, is demonstrating how drones can be used in a search-and-rescue mission following a natural disaster, such as a flood or a tornado.

Pending approval from City Council members tomorrow, the Austin Fire Department will officially be teaming up with two state universities – the University of Texas and the University of North Texas – to consider how the department could employ drones to search for and rescue residents trapped during natural disasters. This would include dropping in on the next batch of university engineering students, like Maynard and his classmates.

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Maynard points to the field beyond the runway. His team’s plane is circling it now.

“We have five targets out there,” he explains. “They’re represented by blue and silver tarps, and then the two targets of interest will have either a smiley face or a frowny face.”

The tarps, Maynard says, could be roofs – often safe havens after homes have been deluged by floodwaters. The “targets of interest,” which are wooden circles on which a sad or happy face has been painted, are there to represent people in need of rescue – the sad face represents someone who needs immediate medical attention.

Staff member Mark Maughmer steadies his drone before takeoff.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

North of Maynard and his classmates, researchers at the University of North Texas have come up with a drone that carries with it a wifi signal. The Council Thursday will decide whether to approve the fire department learning from these researchers, as well.

“The idea is that after a disaster, whether it’s a tornado, an earthquake, a flood, what have you, there will be people who are trapped somehow, whether its in a car or in their home,” says Leslie Minton, a spokesperson for the University of North Texas. “But likely they have a smartphone on them.”

But, as Minton explains, in many cases cell service is out. The wifi drones flown by UNT researchers can enable communication, so that victims of a disaster can connect with emergency responders – even family members concerned about their safety. The signal could also be used by responders to communicate with one another.

There is no specific cost attached to these agreements, and knowledge is the only thing being exchanged – the city will not be paying the university, and vice versa. Costs will include staff time, plus educational materials and technical support. Per city policy, the Austin Fire Department does not discuss items before they have gone to council.

As for Maynard, the UT senior says the fire department’s interest demonstrates how practical this course has been.

“I know for a fact we have a mapping software that we’ve developed that they might be interested in,” he says. “So it’s kind of nice that there’s actually some benefit to what we’re doing, and it’s not just a college class.”

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.