When it comes to emergency or disaster response, speed, safety, and effectiveness are simply non-negotiable. Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs) or drones deliver those results exponentially. From addressing natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding and tornados to oil and gas and other hazardous materials releases, drones provide high resolution imagery with precise data that can only be collected by an airborne system in real time—all at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

But before you hire a company to use drones for your emergency response (ER) needs, there are three things you should take into serious consideration:

1. Insurance Matters

While drone technology is becoming commonplace—its adoption often downplays the reality that the technology itself, while mitigating project risk, can actually cause risk for your organization if it’s not properly procured. Be sure to ask your environmental services provider for details regarding the type of insurance they carry for their drone use. The differences between a general liability policy and aircraft-specific liability policy can be staggering. It’s truly the pivotal point between being fully covered or fully liable. Though many companies are unaware, there’s always an aviation exclusion clause within a general liability policy which precludes the coverage of drone use. So make sure the company you’re partnering with has aircraft-specific insurance. Only partner with those companies who can ensure that your organization is adequately protected throughout the course of the project. And determine who is named on the policy. You want to work with companies who assume your risk, as well as theirs.

Additionally, be wary of the difference between insured and certified. Being insured does not guarantee certification and vice versa. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that commercial drone operators must have a Section 333 Exemption or Part 107 Remote Pilots Certification which allows the use of drone in a United States airspace. Make sure that your pilot has both the appropriate insurance and appropriate certification.

2. All Pilots Are Not Created Equal

While the FAA no longer requires commercial drone operators to obtain a traditional pilots license, firms who do have licensed pilots—backed by months of manned aircraft flight experience—provide their clients with a distinct advantage. A licensed pilot’s extensive training and understanding of the FAA rules complexity means their flight plans and preparation of the standard operating procedures the FAA requires before, during and after each flight will be comprehensive and compliant.

Safety is another key aspect. Manned aircraft pilots who function as drone operators are highly-trained regarding gauging weather and wind conditions, the value of close interaction between the observer and the operator, determining airworthiness, and pre-flight and post-flight checks.

But here’s where you need to pay closer attention. All that we’ve outlined prior pertains to drone operations in general circumstances, e.g. most typical drone-related projects. Factor in the chaos and complexity of an emergency response situation, however, and the demands dramatically increase.

Safety is critical. The environmental services provider you partner with must have behavior-based safety training and expertise, specifically in the ER situation you are addressing. Crisis situations demand intensive planning, extensive preparation, and nearly flawless execution. Drone pilots who have experience handling ER situations on the ground excel when they handle them in the air. These pilots understand that applying the Incident Command System—a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of an ER effort—yields the safest, most efficient operations. Conversely, a lack of ER experience and a lack of in-depth understanding of all the intricacies involved in chaotic situations may not only derail your project and cost you both time and money in the process—it may increase your liability and more importantly, pose significant risks to health and human safety.

3. Transforming Imagery into Insight

Expertise is the defining factor between paying for a service and achieving results. If you simply want to capture photos of an emergency response situation, it might not matter what company you hire for drone operations. But, if you want true insight into the problems you face in an emergency response such as capturing data about the root cause, establishing a baseline of site conditions to be used for future efforts, or properly delineating a hazardous materials release, you need drone pilots who are safety-certified, environmental services professionals, backed by a nationwide network of geologists, hydrogeologists, engineers, air quality specialists, environmental scientists, information management experts, industrial hygienists, and field technicians. This way, you not only gain a mobile, scalable and flexible technology, you turn imagery into insight and insight into action in the safest, most expedient and effective manner possible.

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