Drones have buzzed all around the Carolinas in the days since Hurricane Matthew made landfall north of Charleston, hovering above beaches, bridges and homes as the region works to assess the storm’s damage.
The flights represent some of the first real-world displays in the U.S. of how the technology can be used in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The hurricane made landfall less than two months after federal regulators loosened their rules for commercial drone flights, removing long waits for permission to fly and making it easier for businesses such as wireless phone providers, insurers and the news media to use aircraft to assess the situation.
That means Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina are getting an early look at the future of disaster recovery. A handful of companies say they’re using drones here in new ways, giving practical application to technology they’d only experimented with.
“You can take your unit out, start it up and go. It’s so much easier,” said Tom Fernandez, CEO of the Summerville-based drone service SkyView Aerial Solutions, of the new rules. “It’s a good test case.”
Verizon, for one, had only tested using aircraft to inspect its towers. But as rivers rose in the Pee Dee, the cellphone provider commissioned flights to see whether two of the structures in hard-hit Marion County were threatened by floodwaters, spokeswoman Karen Smith said.
In North Carolina, it flew around a tower blocked by the overflowing Lumber River before hiring a boat to send a crew in person. And as recently as Monday morning in South Carolina, its engineers could see that the equipment at a tower in the town of Brittons Neck was under water, even before workers could make it there.
“We’re able to get in there very quickly and see: Is the equipment damaged in any way? Is the water impacting the equipment on the site? It gets a jump-start on either finding an alternative way to restore service ... or being able to send crew in there and get the site back on the air,” Smith said. “It’s very valuable information.”
More than a week after the storm passed through, insurance companies like Allstate and Travelers are flying drones as their customers file claims, letting adjusters see how roofs fared without climbing a ladder.
Both companies started working on drone inspection programs last year, but the hurricane represents some of their first applications. Allstate expects to run flights around Florence and the Hilton Head area later this week, spokesman Justin Herndon said. Travelers has inspected 40 properties around the state so far, said Jim Wucherpfennig, vice president of property claims.
Some government agencies have gotten involved, too. Myrtle Beach police ran their first-ever drone mission for the storm, flying a 10-mile stretch of the coast to record before-and-after views of the beach, said Lt. Joel Crosby.
And the S.C. Department of Transportation, which has been experimenting with using drones for bridge inspections, has flown several test flights to show their potential, said Douglas Harper, its chief information officer. Drones have filmed footage of the Sampit River covering a roadway near Georgetown and the Little Pee Dee River lapping up against a bridge in Horry County.
The spate of activity owes in part to changes in the way drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. After requiring case-by-case approval with strict criteria, the agency has cleared many of those hurdles, making it easier for a company to set up a flight on short notice.
That’s a big change from even last year, when a flight to inspect damage right after a storm would have been all but impossible, Fernandez said. The old rules required a special exemption to fly near people or buildings, for example, a process that would take too long in a fast-moving recovery.
“It made wide-scale use of drones more difficult,” Wucherpfennig said. “Hurricane Matthew is really the first time, from a property and casualty insurance perspective, where a company could apply drones on more of a wide-scale, catastrophic event.”
But while drones’ role after the hurricane struck South Carolina show some of their early promise, advocates see more extensive use in future disasters. Last year, when the American Red Cross and the drone service firm Measure studied how unmanned flight could help pick up the pieces after a disaster, they wrote about the technology’s promise to speed up the process, predicting a wide range of uses such as insurance inspections.
“The landscape of the industry has changed vastly since then,” said Vania Wang, a spokeswoman for Measure, which conducted Verizon’s post-Matthew inspections. “This use case was always there; it has always been theorized. We’re able to act on it now.”
Still, that future has only been realized in part. The report also envisioned cellphone signals sent from flying transmitters and packages delivered by air to places trucks can’t reach. In the hardest-hit areas, they say, drones could work as a stopgap while infrastructure is strained.
But those uses are still a ways off: Service providers are only now experimenting with airborne antennas, and federal authorities haven’t yet cleared deliveries for takeoff.
Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.