Texas drone summit addresses funding, certification standardization

State & Regional

BURNET, Texas — First responders say as they continue to rely on drone technology in emergencies, standardization in testing and response procedures is needed.

“It’s getting us all to operate the same way, the safe way, each and every time,” Coitt Kessler, Austin Fire Department’s program manager for the robotic emergency deployment, said.

Kessler participated in a simulated wildfire demonstration to showcase how unmanned aircraft systems can work together with manned aircrafts, like helicopters, during the Texas Public Safety Unmanned Aircraft Systems Summit. The Texas Technology Consortium partnered with the Texas Police Association and several technology companies to host the summit at Reveille Peak Ranch, which covered industry alignment and drone consistency across agencies.

“We’re working on regionalization in training and collaboration amongst our other partners in emergency response,” Kessler said.

During the wildfire demonstration, pilots of the drone and helicopter were in constant communication through radio the entire time. However, there are various ways pilots can test to get certified.

“Those are not based on any common standards, so one agency in one state can be certified and another agency in another state [can be certified],” Kamel Saidi, research engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said. “You can’t compare those – that their pilots are as proficient – to each other.”

Right now, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working with other first responders and organizations to develop standards to certify pilots who want to fly drones for public safety applications.

“We are helping these organizations by coming up with the test methods, the ways that you can evaluate both the drone or the unmanned aircraft system, as well as the pilots themselves,” Saidi, who is a University of Texas alumnus, said. “The hope is that at some point, a lot of these national organizations will start using these standards in their certification process, so that everyone who is tested is tested using the same methods, so that the scores can be compared directly, so that on a national basis, everybody can be on the same scoreboard.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology also develops tests for ground and underwater robots for public safety purposes.

“One of the challenges that we see right now and it’s not just in the unmanned aircraft systems, because there is no common way to test how good the pilots are or how good the robots themselves are, it’s hard to say whether a pilot or robot is going to succeed in accomplishing the mission that they’re trying to do.”

The summit allowed various agencies to share input.

“What we have here, this is the first step of working together and analyzing the assets we have, the financial limitations we have and new emerging technologies,” Erwin Ballarta, executive director of the Texas Police Association, said.

Kessler said the future of funding remains unclear but helping public safety departments obtain drones should be a top priority as technology evolves.

“We’re still trying to prove what the value is on the emergency scene,” he said. “Unfortunately we can’t do that without trying and unfortunately we can’t do that without practicing and training.”

That all requires money, he stated, and there’s also a need for an overarching organization to help oversee regulations, standardization and funding opportunities.

“The real value is being able to leverage the technology and affect rescues in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” he said.

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