CASPER, Wyo. — Worland Police received the call about flooding a little before 7 a.m.
First responders evacuated neighborhoods, set up a sandbagging site, notified organizations ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Public Health Department and started updating their community online.
The Bighorn River continued to swell. Thick hunks of ice the size of cars jammed up the river, but emergency crews couldn’t tell where. They needed to see the extent of the problem.
Enter Brandon Yule’s drone.
A GoPro camera mounted to the 2-foot-square, four-rotor “quadcopter” records and transmits a live video feed to Yule’s controller. With the right line of sight, the drone, essentially a remote-controlled flying video camera, can climb to 1,000 feet and travel as much as a mile-and-a-half away.
“We didn’t know how big an area we were looking at, how many ice jams we would have to deal with,” said Gabe Elliott, Worland police chief. “If we didn’t have that visual, we wouldn’t know if we were looking for good news or any news.”
Videos from Yule’s drone helped emergency crews understand the breadth of the flooding and anticipate what the river might do next.
Supporters believe drones have applications in many emergency situations. But public and legislative concerns over privacy and the Federal Aviation Administration’s worries about congested airspace have limited their use in Wyoming and around the country.
Yule has been playing with drones for a few months. The one he used over the weekend was just a couple of weeks old.
“I got it for a hobbyist type thing just to mess around with the (remote control) world of helicopters,” said Yule, a Worland volunteer firefighter and photographer.
A better look
Yule sent the drone up and saw ice jammed in a river bend a mile-and-a-half away. That gave crews an idea of where they could expect the water to come up next.
Throughout the day, Elliott and Yule deployed the unmanned chopper to keep an eye on what was coming downriver and get a better look at areas cut off by flooding.
The ice jams moved throughout the weekend, flooding Manderson and Greybull along the way. Yule was there with his drone, giving crews on the ground an improved view of the situation.
“It’s pennies on dollars for what you get out of it,” Yule said. “It was roughly $1,600, but you use it twice and you’ve paid for it versus sending a pilot up.”
The drone removed the risk to an in-air pilot and was cheaper and faster to deploy than a traditional flyover. The ability to download the video to a computer meant the information could be quickly shared with both the public and the many different organizations involved in the flood fight, he said.
The possibilities piqued the interest of representatives from the Wyoming National Guard, Office of Homeland Security and others, Elliott said.
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“It was a nice showing, and what better time to have that in effect than during a serious disaster?” Elliott said. “It was just perfect timing for all these entities to see what’s out there and what benefits us in these situations.”
Few, if any, emergency response departments in Wyoming are using drones to monitor disasters like fires and floods, or to search for missing people.
“I don’t know how new the technology is for a private resident to have it, but we weren’t even aware they had one in Washakie County,” said Kelly Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security.
Surveillance and safety concerns have led to a national conversation about the use of drones by government agencies.
Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs, said law enforcement faces serious privacy concerns over drone use.
“The paranoia about law enforcement having drones is pretty big,” Oedekoven said. “I was told point-blank by at least one person in Cheyenne they didn’t want us to have drones because at least planes were expensive enough to make us at least think twice about spying on people.”
Last year, State Rep. Carl “Bunky” Loucks, R-Casper, co-sponsored a bill that would have required law enforcement to get a warrant for unmanned aerial surveillance.
Loucks is still emphatic about protecting Wyoming residents’ privacy, but in a Monday interview said he sees many beneficial uses of drone technology.
Shrinking privacy is a valid concern, said John Offe, operations manager for the Joint Training and Experimentation Center at Camp Guernsey. However, he thinks online tools like Google Earth sometimes reveal just as much as a drone does, and the benefits are hard to ignore.
The Joint Training Center builds and tests ground and air drones for research. Their unmanned vehicles are a little bigger, high-tech and costlier than Yule’s hobby drone, but they can serve a lot of the same purposes and are still cost effective, Offe said.
“What we always dreamed of from day one was we go find a guy lost in the snow on Laramie Peak,” said Offe, operations manager at the Joint Training Center. “That would be a great story.”
Ground robots could create fire breaks right at the fire line, unmanned planes could perform search and rescue operations, subs could make whitewater rescues — uses for the technology are limitless, Offe said.
Camp Guernsey was in the running as one of six sites the Federal Aviation Administration wanted to use for testing drones, but it wasn’t chosen. The FAA is investigating how, or whether, to allow commercial drones in national airspace.
“Ownership of airspace gets sticky,” Offe said. “A tool is a tool … it comes down to what’s the best bang for the buck?”
For Worland and other communities along the Bighorn River last weekend, that tool was Yule’s drone.