Early Saturday morning, Chris Miser was headed to the mountain town of Lyons, Colorado, to get a bird's-eye view of the devastation from recent and historic flooding. Miser, who owns Falcon UAV, a Colorado-based small-fry drone manufacturer, had been cruising Falcon's flagship glider on short damage assessment mapping flights over some of the most floodworn portions of the state, where over 1,000 civilians are now unaccounted for. He hoped to make a second pass over Lyons, a small town at the base of the Rockies and one of the hardest hit areas in Colorado.
Then the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed up.
The agency had caught wind of Miser's dronings, and contacted the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center, saying that it would be taking over aerial assessment operations, and that Miser's request to fly, in line with FAA Certificate of Authorization protocol, was denied. And not only that—anyone flying drones in the region would be arrested.
Why, in the largest emergency response since Hurricane Katrina, is the nation's foremost disaster mitigation group actively grounding services that advocates say provide valuable support in times of crises both natural and manmade? As of press time the agency did not get back to my request for comment. I'll update accordingly should I hear back.
For now, we're left with Miser's word that FEMA shut him down without inquiring into what exactly he was even up to.
"They didn't even bother to see if we could help," Miser tells me.
Overlay of the St. Vrain River and equally swollen Left Hand Creek, via Falcon UAV.
Back up two days.
On Thursday and Friday, as weather continued to ground National Guard planes, Miser was able to map part of Lyons and neighboring Longmont with the Falcon, which has an 8-foot wingspan, weighs in just shy of 10 pounds, and takes flight with a simple chuck start (seen at the top of this post). The above overlay of the intersection of the overflowing St. Vrain river and equally swollen Left Hand Creek gives you an idea of the sort of quick assessment capabilities built into something like the Falcon.
"In less than an hour," Miser wrote shortly after, "the imagery was processed and provided to the Boulder EOC."
By this point, Miser got an initial standdown order from the National Guard, whose helicopters would be moving in to survey washouts and aid in evacuation and search and rescue. Miser would head up to Lyons the following morning, anyway—not to fly, but to form a possible plan to do so in the near future. When he got there, a few "Civil Air Patrol and private aircraft" thumped above. To hear him tell it, they apparently couldn't do much of anything:
Unfortunately due to the high terrain around Lyons and large turn radius of manned aircraft they were flying well out of a useful visual range and didn't employ cameras or live video feed to support the recovery effort.
Meanwhile, he had no choice but to stay put on the Lyons High School football field and think about how his pair of Falcons could've "mapped the entire town in 30 minutes" and, provided a few more hours to parse through data, created a "near-real time map" of Lyons.
When I asked Miser why he thinks he's been grounded, he said it's "always ignorance based." And while he hasn't flown since the takedown order, he said he will should he get a request for support. For now, his "suspicion is that some bureaucrat at FEMA doesn't know how to deal with this sort of thing."
To think, his Falcon could've been sniped out of the sky just 100 miles to the south east, where residents in the town of Deer Trail are awaiting a special election to decide the fate of a proposal to allow the city to sell so-called drone hunting licenses. Oh wait, no it couldn't.