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News-Press Now

Garry Pittman, right, watches Craig Farr operate his Inspire 1 drone Tuesday during the Solar Eclipse Drone Project workshop at the University of Missouri Extension office.

A group consisting of licensed drone pilots from the region and the University of Missouri — Kansas City faculty planned and developed a drone-assisted emergency response system that could be useful in a variety of disaster situations.

The pilot project will be tested in St. Joseph during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

Nine pilots and multiple drones will be positioned at two locations along Interstate 29 to help Buchanan County Emergency Management find vehicle crashes on backed-up roadways and monitor crowds at large viewing sites such as East Hills Shopping Center and Menard’s.

Dr. Zhiqiang Chen, an associate engineering professor at UMKC, said a goal of the project is to mobilize local pilots to use their drones during any disaster response situation and to quickly transmit content to an emergency response center.

“During disasters, if we do not utilize this asset, it’s going to be a big loss,” Dr. Chen said. “The key term is situational awareness in real time for both the public and also emergency responders.”

Craig Farr, who helps instruct an adult drone class at Hillyard Technical Center, will be using his large Ford van that has three monitors inside that can take the video feed from three separate drones at once.

Compared to sending in a helicopter, Farr believes that drone technology is a cost-effective alternative for collecting information, images and live video.

“We can deploy so much faster and get them a first-hand view of what they’re seeing,” Farr said. “If we see a problem, we can instantly communicate that, and then send a rescue crew or an ambulance, whatever it is they need. We’re able to assess all that before sending anyone into harm’s way.”

Other points that were discussed during the drone workshop Tuesday were getting on-demand drone insurance through the Verifly app, creating a protocol for traffic incident reports, and using a Wi-Fi repeater to extend the coverage of the internet connection they will use to convert videos directly to YouTube.

Beside applying drones to natural disasters or events like the eclipse, the technology is starting to be used to deliver products and also could help transportation departments inspect areas on bridges that need repairs.

“I don’t think there will be a single industry that is not touched by them and I really feel that way,” Farr said. “Whether it’s a farm, a roofing contractor, or a search and rescue team. It’s amazing the stuff you can do with it and we’re just scratching the surface.”

In order to fly a drone legally, one has to complete a 107 certification, and study guides and courses are available through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Nathan Ellgren can be reached at nathan.ellgren@knpn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @NPNowEllgren.