Falcon UAV drones assisting with flooding in Colorado – until FEMA stops them

A few days ago we shared the Boulder, Colorado crisis response map with you, as the area is continuing to be inundated with rain and flooding.  As they continue to fight the water, another interesting battle is emerging: Falcon UAV against the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Falcon has a hand-launched drone aircraft that can fly for roughly an hour and automatically generate very accurate maps of the ground.  Here is a quick video showing how the drone is launched:

As for the results, you can see a snippet of their work in Colorado below or download the KMZ file here (warning: 500MB) to see it in Google Earth.  It’s quite remarkable, especially considering the speed with which the imagery can be captured, georeferenced and shared.


Unfortunately, FEMA has told them they’re no longer allowed to fly the drone. In fact, they were told that their “request to fly drones was not only denied but more specifically we were told by FEMA that anyone flying drones would be arrested.”

As IEEE Spectrum is quick to point out, we’re only hearing one side of the story.  FEMA may have a very legitimate reason for grounding the drone.  However, considering all circumstances it seems that it would be quite valuable to have that aircraft capturing fresh imagery for the area.

I’m hoping that FEMA releases a statement of some sort about this issue, as it’s reflecting quite poorly on them so far.  Check out the full article for yourself over on IEEE Spectrum.

About Mickey Mellen

Mickey has been using Google Earth since it was released in 2005, and has created a variety of geo-related sites including Google Earth Hacks. He runs a web design firm in Marietta, GA, where he lives with his wife and two kids.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. Paul Burkeland says

    FEMA claims the grounding was to prevent collision with helicopter rescue.


  2. Tyler McGahee says

    I find the IEEE spectrum author to be very ignorant on the topic of UAVs, and it really shows in this article. I think it’ll be clearest if I just go point by point:

    “It [Falcon UAV] has public safety flight approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly in some parts of Colorado”

    It should be common knowledge for any UAV/UAS journalist that currently, the only ways to legally fly UAS are either a Special Air-Worthiness Certificate in the Experimental Category (SAW-EC) or a Certificate of Air-Worthiness (COA). COA’s can only be obtained by government institutions and some research academies, and since Falcon UAV is from a private company, they do not have a COA. Even if they did, it would not allow them to legally fly Falcon UAVs in such bad weather conditions in national airspace.

    More likely is that the company obtained a SAW-EC, which allows the company to fly their UAV with approved 24 hour notice to the FAA, and they have to fly while in constant communication with local control towers. They can also only fly in specific airspace categories, which basically means not near airports.

    From the sentence in the article, “public safety flight approvals”… “to fly in some parts of Colorado”, it sounds like they may even have a SAW-EC, which is a bit of an accomplishment. However, it still precludes them from legally flying in National Airspace in emergency conditions, etc. This means they must follow the “model aircraft” regulations if they want to fly, which aren’t real regulations, but general guidelines. These are detailed in AC 91-57.

    Here are the two (of four) guidelines that a company would be violating by flying an autonomous surveillance UAV in inclement weather or emergency conditions:

    “Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface” The Falcon is designed for flight 300-1500 feet above the surface, so they may have been fine here, but 100′ is a very small flight envelope, so I doubt it.

    “Select an operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated
    areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as
    parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc” Doing surveillance of populated areas from under 400′ is obviously the opposite of being a sufficient distance from populated areas.

    Long story short, the company was never legally OK to fly their drones. Volunteering the resources for law enforcement was a nice thing to do, but FEMA did absolutely nothing wrong in asking you to ground your UAVs, and there’s basically no chance (and no evidence provided) that it was cultural bias or politically motivated. It is simply too unpredictable to have a swarm of UAVs flying around when manned aircraft need to navigate the airspace. The flight towers and pilots are not yet prepared for interfacing with the autonomous systems and the autonomous systems are generally not going to “sense and avoid” other aircraft to avoid aerial collisions. It’s not a good situation for anyone to be in.

    “It’s unfortunate that the government seems more than willing to employ UAVs when it comes to military, police, and security operations, but when drones have a chance to go some tangible public good, the reaction is all of a sudden there’s this panicked “new technology is scary and bad” response.”
    This is such a disturbingly unfounded and ridiculous statement. The military UAVs have been in development for oh, 60+ years? Their “recent” adoption began in the Gulf war with maybe a dozen systems, and it took another decade to gain use, largely prompted by the war on terror. The predator series was developed, what, 20 years ago? Under heavily scrutiny and regulation. If the Falcon company wanted to do tangible public good, they should have gotten organized with their local government agencies a year ago, so they could have had their COA, and they couldn’t get grounded by FEMA. If I make a giant bomb that flies into the sky, say “it lights up the area for rescuers! “, then that has “a chance to go [do] some tangible public good”, but it’s still a very bad idea to use.

    If you have actually paid attention to the FAA, you would know that few years ago already, Congress mandated that the FAA integrate UAVs safely. And that is what their top priority is right now. It is a very complicated infrastructure and regulation system that they are working on, but they are doing a lot of good work, and it helps absolutely no one to post these childish, whiny, uninformed articles about how evil you think the government is.

    Lastly, since I imagine people will just think I hate new technology, I am an Aerospace engineer who is very passionate about UAS, about using them intelligently, and safely, to do the amazing things that they can. But articles like these only hurt the reputation of UAVs, and will never help them become mainstream.

    • A very good overview of the issues and the command structure and we appreciate your time to articulate it. But I would suggest that responding to the author’s statement about his perception of how UAV’s are being used by calling it “whiny, etc” actually sounds whiny in itself. Rather than countering the author’s contention that the government uses the technology chiefly for military and police purposes with a single statement “they are doing a lot of good work”, it would be more beneficial to give some specific examples of what this good work is.

  3. Ummm. Gary. How could you say that without sounding whiny yourself?

  4. archangelmichael2 says

    More New World Order crap coming out. Hopefully more and more people wake up and actually do something other then bash away at the keyboards.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.