A Chat With the Grandfather of Drone SAR: Harvey, FAA & Public Perception

Affectionately known as the grandfather of drone search and rescue (SAR), Gene Robinson has been flying unmanned aircraft pretty much his whole life, starting out with R/C airplanes and expanding to drones outfitted with cameras and sensors. But for the past 13 years, Robinson has been helping save lives in tandem with educating the public on the benefits of unmanned aircraft – efforts particularly beneficial in the wake of the U.S.’ recent wave of hurricanes.

Speaking with UAO , Robinson, who serves as director of operations for Austin, Texas-baed Drone Pilot Inc. (DPI), says he has been “flying something” since the age of four; however, it was around 2003 when he realized drones “were going to be something big.”

In turn, he founded RP Flight Systems Inc. in 2004 and designed his own Spectra unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The Spectra, he says, was actually used in a 2006 SAR operation in Georgia, when he was “the first person ever televised using a drone in a search.” Over the years, Robinson also founded the nonprofit RP Search Services and co-founded the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association, as well as served as chief drone pilot for Texas EquuSearch, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Wimberley, Texas, Fire Department, among other roles.

Because using drones for first response missions has not been widely known until recent times, Robinson knew he had to prove the use case.

“People tend to be fearful of things they don’t know,” he points out.

Thus, over the years, Robinson says it’s been an education process “the entire time,” from SAR and then to firefighting support, when he says “we discovered that we could be a real significant influence in how decisions were made in the firefighting process.”

Continously spreading the knowledge of unmanned aircraft in public safety, Robinson has authored a number of resources used by first response agencies, as well as collaborated with universities across the country on the deployment of drones.

While he and his team have been “learning and learning,” they have been simultaneously “trying to put it out there that drones can do everything,” he says.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Robinson and his crew certainly proved the technology’s worth: They spent 19 straight days deploying drones to help pick up the pieces for people in the areas of Corpus Christi, Rockport and Houston in the aftermath of the storm.

A rotating team, including Robinson and DPI’s John Buell, Enrique Flores and Michael Joseph, as well as officials from local fire and police departments – who DPI, as a company that teaches public safety officials how to use of drones, had previously trained – put in 12-hour days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., says Robinson.

Using several multi-rotor drones over several flights per day, the team conducted a SAR operation, performed damage assessments, and carried out environmental impact assessments for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Importantly, in terms of securing permission to carry out the work, Robinson says DPI was able to nail down an airspace authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) within 50 minutes’ time – a feat unheard of until now.

“Those guys were champs,” he affirms.

Indeed, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta recently stated that the latest hurricane response will be seen as a “landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”

For comparison, back in 2014, Texas EquuSearch – which actually initiated a lawsuit against the FAA for the right to deploy drones after the agency ordered the group to stop – secured an emergency Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to help locate a missing woman, but it took within 24 hours to obtain. Of course, when lives are at stake, 24 hours doesn’t always cut it.

Considering he has been flying drones – and advocating for drones – under a potpourri of different regulations for all of these years, the grandfather of drone SAR knows what a boon the increasingly more friendly regulatory environment has been for the commercial UAS industry.

Speaking on DPI’s speedy COA, Robinson says, “To say it was significantly different is an understatement.”

Photo courtesy of Gene Robinson: Damage in Texas after Hurricane Harvey [Click for More]