Reaper Drones Flying to Monitor Harvey, Irma Aftermath

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct information provided by Air Force Lt. Gen Scott Rice about the type of drones the U.S. government is flying for hurricane relief operations. Other federal agencies, not the Air National Guard, are operating the unmanned aircraft.

The U.S. government has deployed low- and medium-altitude drones to help airlift and search-and-rescue units find victims in disaster-stricken areas, its top general said Saturday.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department, is flying MQ-9 medium-altitude drones, known as Reapers in the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Coast Guard is flying low-altitude ScanEagle drones.

Meanwhile, the Air National Guard is flying manned RC-26 mobile intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes, to scour areas in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey, according to Air Force Lt. Gen Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard.

And they'll use them for Irma, too, he said.

"Taking a picture of, or a look, or a visibility of what has just happened is very, very important," Rice told during an interview at the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States in Louisville, Ky.

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"We have enough assets to rescue and help everyone over time, but we don't have enough assets to rescue everyone right now," he  said, emphasizing that surveillance is key to analysing what areas may be "bad versus critical."

The low- and medium-altitude drones "do help out. And we do deploy those after the fact" of a hurricane, Rice said.

"The unmanned platforms give us great assessment on which areas have lost infrastructure, which haven't, and they influence and help us with a response," the general said.

Rice said the drones are taking snapshots of the scene below as they're airborne, not watching singular events occurring in flooded or damaged areas.

Guardsmen are monitoring the feeds through the Unclassified Processing Analysis and Dissemination sites, which mimics the Air Force's Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS. UPAD provides incident commanders with unclassified imagery, geospatial information, and analytical support. This includes images, aerial video clips, lists of blocked roadways, and more, according to the Guard.

Additionally, he said, "we try to deploy our [PAD], that kind of concept, some equipment and people to the location on where a coordination and communication center might be for the state."

During Harvey, a handful of people and military computer feeds were positioned at the emergency operations center in Austin "to help with the downlink and downfeed from our flying unmanned assets to analyze the data, and present it to the state saying, 'Here's the problem set. How are we going to solve this?'" Rice said.

"That's how we got a lot of people out there to do all those rescues we did," he said. Some parts of Texas are still in rescue and recovery mode.

Rice explained the use of the intelligence gathering is permitted via Title 32, which as authorized by the state requesting the aid, allows for the Guard to use operational resources on U.S. soil.

"Instead of ISR, we do IAA -- Incident Awareness Assessment. A way to say, we're using the same piece of equipment but we're using it on a totally different find and save lives as opposed to find and protect ourselves from the enemy," he said.

When asked how many remotely piloted aircraft are often deployed Rice said few -- definitely "less than a dozen."

Advantages of RC-26

By comparison, the RC-26B -- a C-26 Metroliner modified with electronic surveillance equipment -- provides better situational awareness in U.S. airspace -- pilot to pilot, that is.

Rice said the Air National Guard has been heavily using them for the wildfires burning in Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.

When an RC-26 pilot is flying, he has the sense of "see and avoid other aircraft," he said. But an unmanned aircraft cannot always "see and avoid" something else in the sky, especially during wildfire season or if clouds linger after a large storm.

As technologies evolve, aircraft will better "sense and avoid" in national airspace, Rice said.

"We're changing that airspace -- and we've been working on it for 10 years to change the nature of the airspace," Rice said.

"In 2020, the basis of safety for the US airspace will be sense and avoid, meaning, anything that flies in the airspace will have to have a sensor that talks to all platforms flown," he added, referring to the latest version of the satellite-based transponder known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B.

At this point in time, less than half of all Air Force aircraft are ready, Rice said.

With a man in the cockpit of the Metroliner, the Air Force isn't as limited by Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The service needs extra permissions from the FAA to operate unmanned systems in the airspace, Rice explained.

Large Presence for Irma

Rice said the Air Force is closely monitoring how it will work at Florida's operations center in Tallahassee as Irma moves north. Weather forecasters and scientists cautioned Irma has potential to damage major parts of the Florida peninsula.

As a result, Rice said the Guard added more PAD-type personnel for IAA and also some more search and rescue teams to stand by for Irma.

"The size of the presence is larger," he said.

The general says anticipating the needs for major national events has always been a challenge -- but the military seems to be getting better at the response.

"Everytime we have an event we learn something new," Rice said.

"We learn something new to get after, what I'm after, which is the balance between being structured, being legal, being appropriate and using a process that spends the right amount of money, and [being at the] right place at right time, and people's effort in the right place at the right time...paired with, 'How do I get there faster quicker without restraints?'" he said.

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