Scores of search and rescue workers at Miami’s Champlain Towers site have been nothing short of heroic in their hunt for victims buried by the building’s June 24th collapse. Among those are a team of Florida State University (FSU) drone experts gathering evidence at the condo disaster that may explain why the structure crumbled – and provide information on how similar failures may been avoided in the future.

FSU drones mapping rubble for survivors, failure clues

The crew from FSU’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program and the Center for Disaster Risk Policy were dispatched to the site less than a day after the building crumbled. The team of four drone experts have been operating hundreds of missions over the condo disaster area, collecting more than 35,000 images. As has been the case with other responders to the tragedy, objectives of the FSU team have shifted with time, and the chances of finding survivors dwindled. 

“What it boils down to is, we’ve been working for three weeks and there have been no rescues since the first night, so that takes a toll,” FSU Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program and the Center for Disaster Risk Policy director David Merrick told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Everybody involved really would prefer to have a happier ending and now we just hope to help (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) determine the cause so this doesn’t happen again.”

Initially the unit captured images that went into 2D and 3D models of the collapse site to give responders accessing them via central disaster network servers a better idea of where survivors might be found. Those droning efforts began each day at 6 a.m., ending sometime after 7 p.m., with missions flown every two hours. To date, 97 victims have been located, and 18 million pounds of debris from the demolished tower have been removed. 

Drone experts scour condo disaster area for data useful to avoiding future collapses

As probability of locating victims alive gradually dimmed and faded altogether, the drone experts scanning the condo disaster area have been looking for mapping data that will explain the hows and whys behind the catastrophe. Consequently, outings have reduced to two or three per day. 

“Now, we’re continuing that (mapping) work, but it is also going toward the investigation into why the building collapsed,” Merrick said.

At some point, that data will be used by predictive technologies in the search for ways to avoid building failures from occurring again. In the same spirit Merrick’s team has also been monitoring and documenting the overall rescue operations – including its own role in those – for analysis to determine where they have been successful, and in what ways their performance can be improved.

Prior to the FSU drone experts’ work in Miami’s condo disaster response, they had been involved in rescue operations in Texas after the 2017, Florida’s 2018 Hurricane Michael, floods and wildfires, and even a 2018 volcano eruption in Hawai‘i.

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