Saturday, September 09, 2017

Chesapeake-based company's drone pilots fly more than 5,000 Harvey disaster relief missions in Houston area

A Chesapeake-based company that trains amateur drone pilots coordinated more than 5,000 disaster relief missions in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey.

DroneUp, an app that's the main interest of Chesapeake resident Tom Walker's company DART Ventures, allows certified drone pilots – many of them hobbyists – to sign up for training and be part of a "drone-assisted response team" to help when they receive alerts, such as for a missing child or missing elderly person.

After seeing Harvey's destruction of Texas communities, the app's leaders said, they decided to help by recruiting drone pilots in the area who could help capture photo and video in areas most people couldn't reach, said Jim Harenchar, DroneUp's chief marketing officer.

Following approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the team introduced the platform in Texas a little more than a week ago. The idea was to recruit local pilots who could download the app and be alerted to disaster-related assignments from law enforcement or citizens.

More than 400 pilots signed up, a quarter of them in Houston, Harenchar said. Some were from out of state.

"They packed up their drones and their suitcase and off they went to try to be of help," Harenchar said. 

DroneUp served as a sort of middleman, alerting its pilots to the missions when they popped up and sending the resulting photos and video to the appropriate individual, commercial or government parties.

The pilots have carried out more than 5,000 assignments in the area, Harenchar said Saturday. Those included residents' requests to check on elderly neighbors or people who had to flee their farms and needed to know the status of their animals left behind.

The pilots would receive an address, fly their drone out and come back with footage that could inform the displaced people who needed it. Many commercial operations used the platform to check on flooded facilities and see when they could get employees back in.

Harenchar said requests are starting to die down with only a little over a dozen each day. All the work in Texas was voluntary.

Now that the newly launched platform has gotten significant recognition, the team's shifting to developing a revenue stream.

On that note, DroneUp named Wayne Zinn, who has worked with Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile, as its new CEO. Walker had served as president and CEO and will continue on as president.

"This experience showed us that we were stretched way too thin," Harenchar said. But the Harvey work also proved "a bit of validation for what we thought the platform would allow."

DroneUp has been in contact with state and federal emergency management officials from Virginia down to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma efforts. But Harenchar said they want to make sure "we are not a distraction to ongoing or existing plans.

"We're prepared. We're on standby. But we'll only go if the states ask us to."

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