A Wimberley pilot is working with local fire departments to supply an unmanned aircraft and training for use in emergency situations.
Gene Robinson has for more than a decade perfected the designs of unmanned aircraft at his Wimberley-based company, RPFlight Systems. Robinson has recently entered into negotiations with an Austin Fire Department (AFD) emergency robotics team.
Robinson pilots an unmanned aircraft for the Wimberley Fire Department and participated in rescue and recovery efforts following the historic Memorial Day weekend floods, he said. Robinson made more than 10 flights with his latest unmanned aircraft design, the Spectra flying wing, to search over seven miles of the Blanco River and Wimberley Valley.
The aircraft was able to locate several submerged vehicles in the Blanco River after search helicopters missed them, Robinson said.
In emergency situations, an unmanned aircraft often has the advantage over their manned counterparts, Robinson said.
Deployment of an unmanned aircraft and their necessary personnel and supporting equipment creates a minimal “footprint” at disaster scenes, he said.
“We’ve put all (of the equipment) in a backpack and sent people up mountains,” Robinson said. “It can be that small.”
Robinson used the drone to search the debris-ridden terrain of the Wimberley Valley with high-quality images from an onboard camera. The 10-megapixel camera is able to identify objects on the ground as small as 1.75 inches from an altitude of 400 feet.
The aircraft can stream video to emergency crews on the ground or provide high-resolution images for analysis after landing, Robinson said. The images are paired with GPS data to direct emergency personnel on the ground to precise locations.
“This aircraft can gather a lot of data very quickly,” Robinson said. “(Emergency personnel) are getting direct, actionable data from (images) we just got minutes ago.”
Robinson, a lifelong pilot and aviation enthusiast, said he became interested in unmanned aircraft in 2000 while recovering from surgery.
“I had some neck surgery done, and I had to be quiet and still—which is unusual for me—so I did a lot of reading,” Robinson said. “I found out about (unmanned aircraft). It intrigued me, and I started working with them.”
Robinson makes all of his unmanned aircraft in a workshop outside of Wimberley.
Aircraft parts in a myriad of colors and various stages of completion were tucked in corners, hanging from the walls and piled on tables in Robinson’s workshop.
“All the things you see on the wall are basically benchmarks,” Robinson said, gesturing to the many aircrafts in his workshop. “We’ve got an aircraft that was up on Mount Hood when some of the climbers went missing in 2012. We got our first fully autonomous aircraft up there in 2008.”
Robinson said he has helped numerous efforts around the world with his aircraft. He is currently negotiating with Texas State faculty to assist in geographic information systems work.
The AFD is considering the purchase of an unmanned aircraft from Robinson for emergency use, said Coitt Kessler, project manager for the AFD’s Robotic Emergency Deployment (R.E.D.) team. No final decision has been made.
The AFD received the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) days before the Memorial Day weekend flooding to proceed in the use of unmanned aircrafts for emergency and rescue operations, said Andrew Reyes, AFD lieutenant and R.E.D. team member.
The R.E.D. team trained in the use of unmanned aircraft operations in Wimberley with Robinson in the days following the flood, Reyes said.
“We were able to see images from a bird’s-eye view—straight down—that perhaps traffic walking along the banks and boats could not see from their vantage point,” Reyes said.
Kessler said the capabilities afforded by an unmanned aircraft could be useful in a variety of fire and emergency situations.
“Everybody says a picture is worth a thousand words, right,” Robinson said. “We can put a picture in front of (an emergency command center) that shows a given area, and they can make intelligent decisions based on the information they get.”
Robinson said he hopes to reduce the negative stigma attached to unmanned aircraft by working with organizations like the AFD and Texas State’s geography department. More lenient regulations by the FAA are an example of the change.
Flying the unmanned aircraft in rescue and emergency operations requires Robinson to first obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA before participating, he said.
The FAA issued Robinson a COA with promptness considering the circumstances, he said.
“During the flood, we had the full cooperation of the FAA,” Robinson said. “The FAA is bending over backwards, doing everything they can to get us in the air.”
Public fears concerning safety and invasion of privacy are not only unfounded but a major obstacle in the widespread adoption of unmanned aircraft for emergency use, Robinson said. He hopes as unmanned aircrafts become more commonplace, the public’s opinion will change.
Robinson said he believes unmanned aircrafts are quickly leaving the realm of science fiction and are becoming a reality.
“It’s happening now,” Robinson said. “We’re getting acceptance.”