CHARLOTTESVILLE VA Jan 1 2017—Central Virginia will play host to one of the first national conferences on the use of drones for public safety, as first responders from around the country converge in late February on Piedmont Virginia Community College in Albemarle County.
PVCC—which offers the state’s only workforce certificate in drone operation—will host its first National Unmanned Aerial Systems Summit from Feb. 27 to March 1. According to organizers, the list of planned attendees includes officials from Georgia, Texas, Utah, Florida and Ontario, Canada.
Over the course of three days at Roseland Farms in Crozet, they’ll share ideas and best practices on the use of drones for public safety purposes—mostly search and rescue, but also weather imaging, damage assessment and disaster response, said Darren Goodbar, a drone instructor at PVCC. The list of topics does not include surveillance, Goodbar said.
Drones are becoming an increasingly important tool in public response to disasters. The Albemarle County Fire Rescue Division is one of many public agencies incorporating drones into their operations—most notably in the 2014 search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, who was later found murdered.
Elsewhere, rescue workers have used drones to gather crucial data and map out a disaster area so relief workers could focus their efforts where they’re needed most. In Southern California, fire departments use them to monitor the speed and movement of wildfires. They were used to find victims trapped in the rubble following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
Public agencies everywhere are incorporating drones into their arsenal, Goodbar said, but there’s little sharing of information across jurisdictions.
Because of their small size and because they’re unmanned, drones can get closer to a dangerous situation than a manned aircraft. Fire and rescue departments might use them to identify victims in a fire or a flood, or to get closer to a hazardous materials spill.
But there still are risks associated with flying up close to a dangerous scene, and poor piloting could make a bad situation even worse, Goodbar said. Carelessly flying an electrical vehicle with a battery could add fuel to the fire—literally.
During the conference, officials will share their experiences in panel discussions and before putting some of their new knowledge to the test in a series of field exercises at Roseland.
“The people coming to this will get realistic training,” Goodbar said. “Not only will they get to see how the technology is used, but how it plugs into a real-world scenario.”
Virginia is trying to position itself as a national leader in this area, and PVCC is right at the center of it, said Valerie Palamountain, director of workforce services at the college.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which a co-organizer of the conference, is trying to help responders from across the commonwealth to coordinate with one another by adopting uniform standards and protocols.
“It’s about making sure multiple agencies and jurisdictions are on the same page,” Palamountain said.
Part of that push is getting the public to understand the value of drones, which most people associate with spying and extrajudicial killings. Palamountain said people are beginning to see that drones are not necessarily a surveillance tool—they can be used to minimize casualties in an emergency.