Quake Takes: Damage Assessment by Drone

January 21, 2019
Quake Takes: Damage Assessment by Drone

By K. Daniel Glover

Alaska Aerial Media’s goal of convincing government agencies in The Last Frontier to explore the next aviation frontier paid off late last year after an earthquake hit near Anchorage. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities hired the company to map the damages with its fleet of drones.

The 7.0 earthquake rumbled Alaska’s largest city awake at 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30. Alaska Aerial Media quickly deployed its crews to document the infrastructure damage, and the DOT&PF used the footage to assess the situation remotely and prioritize repairs. After five long days of flight time in the field and editing time in the studio, Alaska Aerial Media had a solid case study for using drones to assess disaster damages.

“It’s pretty impressive technology to be able to capture it in such a small amount of time where they’re trying to restore services or restore roadways while you’re out there mapping,” Alaska Aerial Media founder Ryan Marlow said. “It worked great.”

Alaska Aerial Media is a trailblazer in the drone industry. In 2015 the company became the first in the state to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly drones for commercial purposes. Its two exemptions from airworthiness regulations for specific unmanned aircraft systems applied to aerial cinematography and aerial data collection.

Back then the company, which has four full-time pilots and six others ready to expand the team as the client workload demands, primarily captured aerial footage for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, TLC and Travel Channel programs filmed in Alaska. Alaska Aerial Media also worked on car commercials for Toyota and shot a music video for a South Korean pop artist.

A crew member places pads near earthquake damage to ensure precision GPS data.

“That gave us the big boost,” Marlow said, “and interested parties from oil and gas and a lot of the survey community reached out to us.” Now the company uses its drones far more often for mapping and inspections than for cinematography.

Marlow and his team scan pipelines on the Alaska North Slope and pinpoint any damage so the companies can pre-cut shims and metals before halting production to make repairs. “When they do shut it down,” he said, “it’s just a short down time instead of it being down for a week.”

Alaska Aerial Media also works with federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support research into Cook Inlet beluga whales, humpback whales and other species covered under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Drones are able to get much closer to wildlife than helicopters without disturbing them, and they produce high-resolution images.

That collaborative business model led to the infrastructure inspections after the earthquake. Alaska Aerial Media had an existing relationship with the Alaska DOT&PF, and the earthquake created an opportunity to use drones for disaster management, a concept that Marlow first suggested to department officials at an Alaska UAS Interest Group meeting. He reached out to them after the earthquake, and the DOT&PF agreed to test the idea.

“We received a list from them of reported damages [to roads and bridges],” Marlow said, noting that many of the leads came through the social media hashtag #AnchorageEarthquake. “No one knew what the areas looked like.”

Crews of three from Alaska Aerial Media headed to the locations soon after the quake to film them from the air and send images back to the DOT&PF emergency operations center. “Any areas we found that had significant damage, we would send over texts,” Marlow said. The crews shared the rest via Google Drive.

“We have one roadway out of Anchorage, and of course that’s what got damaged,” Marlow said. It took about four hours to travel one mile in the immediate aftermath. “It was pretty rough for a lot of people trying to get home or out of town.”

Aerial imagery of highway damage after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska

While the whole Alaska Aerial Media team deployed the day of the quake, two crews provided site updates as requested by the DOT&PF over the next few days. Each crew consisted of at least one aircraft operator and a visual observer to watch for other aircraft.

The imagery served multiple purposes. First, the department used it to prioritize repairs. In the past, repair crews would have been dispatched to the locations without knowing exactly what to expect until they arrived.

The advance aerial views this time “allowed crews to really respond and basically have an idea what was happening and plan for those sites,” Marlow said. He added that in many cases, roads were patched, resurfaced and open to traffic within 72 hours of the quake.

The DOT&PF also shared photos and videos with journalists, which kept media visits to the sites to a minimum. “They weren’t flying drones [of their own]. They weren’t trying to access the sites,” Marlow said. “It really took the stress out of having all these systems flying around.” And the imagery enabled the department to update the public about the status of repairs.

LiDAR imagery of the earthquake damage

Longer term, Alaska Aerial Media’s drone work may help earthquake researchers. Marlow said his team gathered extra data, including a three-dimensional map of extensive damage near Wasilla, precisely for that reason. “You can capture the entire site in one go and then come back after the fact” to examine the model in an effort to improve future infrastructure.

The weather was the biggest challenge to gathering the data. Snow was on the ground the day of the earthquake; warm winds and rain followed; and then a cold front brought ice to the area. “It just turned into a nightmare for flying,” Marlow said.

Alaska Aerial Media chose to postpone flights at the Eagle River Bridge because of wind and the drones’ proximity to traffic. The company uses a proprietary risk matrix index patterned after the one in the FAA’s safety risk management policy to determine when it’s safe to fly.

“It’s a proven method. It works for the airlines,” Marlow said. Alaska Aerial Media hasn’t lost any drones to crashes or system failures since implementing their safety program. “It has done wonders for our company and our reliability and our safety record, too.”

That safety record, and the success of the post-earthquake inspection project, will help the company as it continues its advocacy for drones in disaster management. Marlow’s goal is to convince agencies to develop internal UAS programs to that end, using his company’s Advanced Aerial Education program to train pilots.

“Our want is to make it so that we can have public agencies with these tools,” he said.

All imagery in this “Mission Report” was provided by Alaska Aerial Media. If you have a story to tell about an interesting drone project, please email your suggestions to the publisher.