During the AUVSI Xponential 2019 show, we had the chance to talk with three members of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, the North Carolina DoT turned to drones to make visible not only the storm damage but also the extensive flooding that took place in the state.

Updated with a full transcript of the interview.

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Interview with key members of the North Carolina DoT

Drone footage of major roads such as I-40 helped them explain to motorists who certain roads were closed. During the Xponential 2019 event, the NC DoT was awarded the 2019 AUVSI XCELLENCE Humanitarian Award for their use of drones in the aftermath of the hurricane.

During the show, I had the chance to quickly interview the key members of the agency:

  • Basil Yap, UAS Program Manager
  • Bobby Walston, Director
  • Darshan Divakaran, UAS Program Engineer. You can watch the video below.

This video shows the flooded I-40

Full transcript of the interview

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: So, we’re here at AUVSI, and one of the things that DJI’s doing is sponsoring the Humanitarian awards. A lot of that stuff is happening in North Carolina as well. We’re here with three people from North Carolina, who are going to talk about this. We are going to start with you. Maybe quick introduction, and then talk more about what actually is happening in the drone industry in North Carolina.

Basil Yap: Sure. So, my name is Basil Yap, UAS Program Manager for the drone department within the department of transportation. We are found within the division of aviation, thinking all things aviation. With me is our director, Bobby Walston. Our role is to facilitate and manage immigration of drones or UAS into North Carolina.

Bobby Walston: Hi, Bobby Walston, director of the division of aviation under our department transportation. North Carolina is unique with our DoT, and that we manage, we own and operate, all the highways, the roads, the bridges, and have many other modes. The ferry division, public transportation, biking pit, the rail division, and then aviation. It was logical when it came time to start looking at this technology, and how to integrate it into our state. Working with our state legislators is DoT stepping up to take the lead in it, for the entire state with all state agencies. In that process of doing that, we embraced the technology, started utilizing platforms like DJI, to start doing response, start to educate the public. So, looking at all purposes, and values for both public safety, as well as other commercial purposes for it. Taking the lead in that, we can not just focus on public safety, but we can focus on all these other purposes as well. We’re fortunate to be put in that position, and kind of all things aviation, as Basil said in our state. So, that’s our focus now. Not just manned, but unmanned as well. Geographically where North Carolina is, on the East Coast of the United States, we’re prone to a lot of hurricanes, so that’s what led us into this situation with hurricane Florence in the fall of last year.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Is it fair to say that, the unfortunate events of hurricanes were in a way a breakthrough for drones, and that people realized that drones can actually do a lot of good as well, and are more than just toys.

Bobby Walston: It absolutely was, and being one of 10 selected by FAA to be on the integrated pilot program. We already had a lot of great things happening with FAA, to lay the groundwork to make things happen very fastly. So, when we started to ramp up for this storm, and looking at all aviation assets. We were well suited with private companies that were ready to get flying, and operate for us, as well as the state agencies like our highway patrol, and public safety.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Now, one of the drone initiatives is manageable I guess for the DJI Humanitarian Awards.

Bobby Walston: That’s correct.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Can we talk a little bit about that as well?

Bobby Walston: That’s correct. I’m going to turn it over to the guys that really did the work, so you can learn a little bit more about the details of that. It was fascinating from my perspective, to watch the business case of it, and the value of it because North Carolina has been through this many, many times, but never with this technology. Never with this capability. I’ll introduce you here to Darshan.

Darshan Divakar: Hi, I’m Darshan Divakar. I’m the UAS Program Engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The hurricane Florence response, the flight operation side of it, and the main focus for me was to make sure the pilots that were deployed to the locations for inspections, surveying, and mapping and everything, was to have the right credentials, to make sure that they were safe doing operators, to make sure they had the technology that they needed. During a hurricane, or any disaster, it’s difficult to communicate, and we had to make sure that we had the right communication channels with them. It is basically to make sure the right team, at the right location, to get us the updates on how the road conditions are, the bridge conditions, the rail conditions. So, that our engineers, and DoT engineers, and other stakeholders in our state, can respond accordingly. To talk more about the operations, I’ll hand it over to Basil Yap.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Back to you Basil.

Basil Yap: One of the really exciting parts of the response was this unanticipated use of drones that we saw. That was the story that we were telling about the extent of the damage. So, we went into the storm thinking, all right we’re going to use drones to help our engineers assess where the roads are closed, etc. We are actually able to capture the full extent of the flooding, and show three miles of I-40, this major interstate through our state, which was underwater. So, taking that imagery, sharing it through social media, and other news media events, we were able to tell the story about the flooding that was happening. That helped with folks that were traveling, they could understand why roads were closed. As Darshan mentioned, we captured a lot of data. We flew over 250 missions, we captured over 8,000 videos, and images. We wanted to be able to capture this data, and then share it appropriately. We kind of developed a great template for that, where we would bring in the data, and since these photos were already geo-tagged, we could put it on a GIS map. A map of the state, and it automatically references locations to where the photos were taken, and then we could share that with all of our emergency responders. That was their go-to place, to look at images, and get updates, they could see daily updates. We updated that site every 30 minutes, with news photos and videos.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Can you tell a little bit about how many drone teams were involved, and the kind of drones that were flown during these operations?

Basil Yap: We had 15 drone teams deployed. They’re made up of both state employees. So, our DoT employees, as well as state highway patrol. We also had on call consultants who were helping us, names like PrecisionHawk, and Drone Scape, and others. We had a variety of drones that were flying, but primarily flying DJI products. We were able to use some of the builtin features, to live stream those operations in, especially traffic bag through the existence features already in the DJI Go app. So, that was really exciting. A key part of this was talking together, and communicating together. We used another partner, AirMap to help communicate.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Now in a few months we are going to head into this year’s hurricane season. Have you guys changed anything based on all of the learnings from previous years? How are you going to go about these four months, is the operation changed, or preparation with that?

Basil Yap: Darshan would be great to talk about his role working with FEMA, and really connecting the dots with the public safety agencies.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: We go back to Darshan.

Darshan Divakar: Hi. So, we know that the hurricane season comes every year. Now with the focus on last year’s operation, people want to get data faster, they want to respond to scenes faster. So, we have to start preparing based on the data that we got last year, and also coordinate with agencies that are responding to an emergency, like FEMA, FAA, Coast Guard, National Guard. So, we have started communications with them, and we have explained to them that the next step is to get more of the technology, and more pilots out. Last time we had 15 teams, we are looking at deploying larger teams, to find out solutions for real-time streaming, faster solutions, but also coordinating with FEMA, and FAA to make sure that everything is streamlined. During a disaster or an emergency, there is a lot of confusion. In our state, we are looking to become the first state in the nation to focus everything through a simple, straight channel where our division of aviation helps all the agencies in North Carolina to do their job, and not worry about the largest stakes, on authorization, wavers, and permissions to fly to these locations. We can work with them together, because of my expertise. That is the way forward is to provide faster response, better technology, and to ensure all people are safe, or in a save lives, is our main focus at the end of the day.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: That sounds like North Carolina’s going to be state’s forefront of using drones in disaster response. Are these best practiced to shared with other states, like Florida, or Georgia, or South Carolina, or any of the other ones?

Darshan Divakar: And I’ll pass the message to Bobby.

Bobby Walston: Sure. Yeah. We’ve published some papers, and really availed ourselves, or these guys particularly, to go out to do presentations just like we did at AUVSI XPonential. We take every opportunity we can to share. In fact, I reminisce prior to hurricane Florence coming in, where we met over the phone with the Texas folks, who had just gone through this about a year ago. We were able to talk to them, and see what we could also see to me, what was the telltale factor, is how much technology had already improved in just one year, and how we were able to just go at this with the latest tools, and tricks, and had people already certified to go out and do this. That made a big difference. We are trying to push that forward with entities all over the country, you know.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: All right, well thank you so much for your time, and for all of the information.

Bobby Walston: Sure. Thank you.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Thank you.

Darshan Divakar: Thank you.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Thank you.

Basil Yap: Thank you.

Haye Kesteloo / DroneDJ: Thank you.

DJI had also released a statement about the awards and the winners. See below for details.

Five Pioneers In Innovative Philanthropy Honored By 2019 AUVSI XCELLENCE Humanitarian Award

DJI Sponsors Award For Drone Missions That Save People, Animals And The Environment

Five winners of the second annual XCELLENCE Humanitarian Award were recognized Thursday as pioneers in using drones for good. DJI, the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, sponsored the award and helped announce the winners at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) XPONENTIAL conference at McCormick Place in Chicago.

Humanitarian Award winners pose at AUVSI XPONENTIAL“We’ve seen an expanding implementation of drone technology in the past year, from locating humans lost under cluttered forest canopies, to dropping critical medications in Africa, Oceania and Latin America, to enabling students to program drones and fly autonomous missions,” said Mario Rebello, Country Manager for North America and Vice President of the Americas at DJI. “These innovators are a true proof of drone innovation driven not just by the technology itself, but by its users. We are thrilled to see drones embraced widely across an expanding range of industries, and we hope the award will inspire more drone operators around the world to accomplish great feats in their own communities.”

The 2019 AUVSI XCELLENCE Humanitarian Award saw a significant number of participants providing profound, powerful insight into how drone technology can be implemented in different areas. Among them, the five winners were most notable for their works in disaster relief and public safety, education and training, firefighting, wildlife conservation, and ecosystem solutions.

The winners are:

  • North Carolina Department of Transportation – Using drones in an innovative response to Hurricane Florence (United States)
  • Swoop Aero – Vaccine and health supply delivery on the island nation of Vanuatu (Vanuatu)
  • NASA/MIT Search and Rescue Under the Canopy (SARUC) – Locating people and other important targets lost in challenging and cluttered forest areas (United States)
  • Project Lifesaver International – Search and rescue for ‘at risk’ individuals who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering (United States)
  • Zipline International – Medical drone delivery operations in Africa (Rwanda and Ghana)

“The Humanitarian Awards demonstrate the profound ability of the recipients to positively impact lives through unmanned systems technology,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “We proudly recognize the five winners and hope their accomplishments will serve as an inspiration to utilize unmanned aircraft systems to accomplish remarkable achievements for our society.”

The five organizations will each receive a $5,000 USD donation for their ground-breaking humanitarian and philanthropic efforts.

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Photo: NASA


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