People increasingly see drones as “the future of aviation,” but could they also be the future of aviation accident response and investigation? If a plane crashes intact in a well-developed area, then probably not. If, however, the aircraft crashes in a wilderness area or an area where it is dangerous for responders to get into, then a UAS could be of immense value.
For example, a UAS could be helpful in responding to an accident like MH 17 or TWA 800, where the aircraft has a catastrophic structural failure at high altitude. Parts of the aircraft can be literally scattered over many square miles. The ability to get one or more UASs in the air quickly could help first responders identify the boundaries of the debris filed and pinpoint areas of high value without requiring them to wander about aimlessly in the hopes of stumbling on part of the crash site.
UASs may also have advantages over either conventional aircraft or satellite imagery in many situations. A small UAS and its operator can easily be taken to the accident zone. It could be directly operated by qualified investigation/rescue team members. The UAS can fly at lower altitudes than an aircraft and, once a debris impact zone is found, the UAS can immediately determine if there are any survivors in need of assistance and can document the status of the wreckage before it is disturbed. While satellite imagery can be helpful, it still takes 48 to 72 hours to acquire and analyze satellite imagery in most cases.
In addition, as we have seen in the MH 17 disaster, there can be geopolitical situations where a conventional aircraft would not be welcome overflying a crash site. A small UAS could be viewed as an expendable asset that would allow information to be collected with no risk to a pilot. In fact, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has just issued an urgent solicitation to acquire one or more UASs to help monitor and secure the MH17 crash sites. The OSCE wants to have the UASs in place by July 25th.
There are also a number of accidents every year in remote areas. For example, in 2008, an aircraft carrying a number of United Nations (http://twocircles.net/2008sep08/pakistani_peacekeepers_help_recover_bodies_plane_crash_victims_drc.html#.U86t-vldWtY) relief workers crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Special forces troops had to rappel down from helicopters at the foot of the mountain where the plane crashed, and then clear a landing pad for helicopters, that could then be used as a staging ground for getting to the crash site. If a small UAS was available, the forces could have done an early reconnaissance of the crash site to determine if there were survivors and it would have aided in planning to get the relief to the actual crash site further up the mountain.
While UASs have evolved at an astonishing rate, UAS technology is still in its infancy, and in many ways, UASs are still a solution in search of a problem. However, there can be no doubt that in the near future, UAS technology will completely transform how disaster response is conducted and coordinated worldwide.
(Originally posted July 24, 2014)