How Drones Quietly Mapped Oso Landslide Area

May 5, 2014

Brittany Duncan of Roboticists Without Borders flies a drone to survey the Oso mudslide on April 23, 2014.
Brittany Duncan of Roboticists Without Borders flies a drone to survey the Oso mudslide on April 23, 2014.
Credit Tamara Palmer

As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill in April that would have regulated drone use statewide, a consortium of disaster recovery specialists quietly negotiated the use of drones to make a 3-D model of the Oso mudslide.

Inslee vetoed the Legislature's bill on April 4 citing privacy and transparency concerns that he said were not adequately addressed, but he said he would still let drones fly in emergencies.

Then, on April 23, Field Innovation Team and Roboticists Without Borders attached a camera to an AirRobot drone and flew it over the slide area for 48 minutes. The images generated 2-D and 3-D models of the slide area that incident command engineers can use for reconstruction and recovery.

Tamara Palmer of Field Innovation Team said her company delayed the flight and announcement that it had happened because of sensitive issues like victims' privacy in the Oso slide, and drone use in general in the Washington political climate. A responder working with FIT told KUOW in April that an early attempt to use drones in recovery had been scuttled.

"There are many moving parts in a large collaboration such as this," Palmer said, "and we wanted all the wonderful people who were involved to be part of the public discussion." The drone flight was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and incident response command in Oso.

Norman Skjelbreia of Oso incident command said in a statement that a drone flight "protects first responders because we don’t have to go into dangerous spots just to find out what’s there." Imaging may be just the first wave of drone use in recovery operations.

NASA and Homeland Security announced tests last year of drone components that can detect heartbeats and cellular signals behind 20 feet of concrete.