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UC students plan drone use for hurricane response

Wehmeyer headshot

Douglas Wehmeyer, battalion chief of Deerfield Township Fire Rescue Department, shared his disaster response experiences in the days after Hurricane Michael. Photo/Provided

In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle. The storm’s 155 mph winds toppled trees and telephone lines, closing highways and knocking out power and communications serving more than 1 million people.

Bay County, home to Panama City, took the brunt of the storm. 

In the aftermath of Michael, Douglas Wehmeyer, M.P.A., battalion chief of the Deerfield Township Fire Rescue Department, traveled to Florida to oversee and maintain five shelters across Bay County. On Jan. 22, Wehmeyer talked about the experience at the University of Cincinnati’s Aerospace Engineering Graduate Seminar. Each month, these seminars expose UC students to the range of the real-world applications of their classroom work.

“During Hurricane Michael, my eyes were opened up,” Wehmeyer said. “We started to think that there are some real possibilities for us to enhance our operations.”

In disaster response, one budding technology involves unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, commonly called drones, which can provide immediate relief to people on the ground. UC’s aerospace engineering students, along with the UC UAV Master Lab, have experience and technologies that can help communities in the days and months after hurricanes like Michael. 

This is a golden opportunity for UC to make a difference. If the ultimate goal is serving people, we must break the barrier between academia and emergency services.

Kelly Cohen, Head of UC's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics

When Wehmeyer arrived in Bay County, he said it was like entering a time warp. Electric and communication lines were down, including the region’s cell network hub. As responders crossed county lines, their cell phones, including GPS tracking, simply stopped working.

“Everything we do in our lives today is tied to the devices in our pockets,” Wehmeyer said. “When we take that way, how are we going to function?”

After the disaster, Florida emergency officials expected information on each shelter’s condition, as well as the numbers of people sheltered and fed. With communication wiped out, Wehmeyer had no choice but to drive to each shelter, crawling along backed-up backroads that turned half-hour commutes into day-long excursions.

Drones would have proven invaluable in this scenario, Wehmeyer said. UAVs can fly over closed roads and traffic to relay important messages and collect data. Drones also can provide relief in search-and-rescue operations, primary damage assessment, rumor control and infrastructure inspection. 

UC professor Kelly Cohen, head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, agrees that drones could be an invaluable tool. Cohen sees a chance to use UC's drones to respond to a disaster.

“When we advance in the world of engineering, we find ways to impact society,” said Cohen. “This is a golden opportunity for UC to make a difference. If the ultimate goal is serving people, we must break the barrier between academia and emergency services.”

Cohen, alongside inspired graduate students, plans to write a proposal for a state-funded project investigating drone use in disaster responses.

Hurricanes aren’t going away. Rising global temperatures tied to humid airs and warmer waters are the right conditions for the brutal Atlantic storms. Drones, however, may be the right response. 

Featured image at top: Mexico Beach, Fla., is wrecked in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Photo/National Weather Service

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