FEMA threatens to arrest volunteer drone operators during Colo. flood relief

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

Drone manufacturers have accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of threatening to arrest anyone flying drones over the Colorado flood damage over the weekend, even those volunteering with the relief effort.

On Saturday, FEMA grounded Colorado company Falcon UAV — a drone manufacturer that had been helping local authorities map the disaster area in near-real time — and threatened to arrest anyone flying a drone over the disaster area, IEEE Spectrum reports.

Drone industry representatives, plagued by the negative stigma drones have earned from their service in war, have been eager to promote the non-lethal uses of unmanned aerial systems.

Falcon UAV had been volunteering its services with the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center’s (EOC) relief efforts for several days prior; the company’s drone, called the Falcon, uses GPS and cameras to create detailed maps of the ground it flies over.

Falcon UAV is cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in some parts of Colorado.

The company said in a blog post that when they were heading up to Lyons, Colo. early Saturday morning to conduct damage assessment they were notified by the Boulder EOC that FEMA had taken over the relief operations, denied Falcon UAV’s request to fly a drone, and said “that anyone flying drones would be arrested.”

Falcon UAV also noted that while Civil Air Patrol and private aircraft were authorized to fly over the damaged town, the mountainous landscape made it difficult to see and help provide visual support for the recovery efforts.

“Meanwhile we were grounded on the Lyons high school football field with two Falcons that could have mapped the entire town in less than 30 minutes with another few hours to process the data providing a near real time map of the entire town,” said Falcon UAV.

According to 9news.com, however, Boulder County emergency managers, not FEMA, grounded the drone. A Boulder County emergency manager said that “local emergency managers grounded the drone out of concern that it could collide with helicopters being used to evacuate residents.”

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment.

This story has been updated. 

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