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Drones may assist emergency response to flooding in Red River Valley

Strategy in dealing with natural disasters adds new tools to mix

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A rural road in Grand Forks County shows the effect of high water on Oct. 15, 2019. Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — The North Dakota Department of Transportation has partnered with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site to use drones to relay information in a potential spring flood battle.

The plan is to use drones to capture still images and live video to be used by officials in determining whether to close a road, when to reopen one and when to conduct visual inspections of bridges, should it become necessary. The National Weather Service has projected moderate to major flooding in the Grand Forks area, minor flooding in Grafton and major flooding is expected in Pembina.

“That’s a big impact for the community,” said Nick Flom, executive director for the UAS Test Site. “To be able to use drone technology to keep a road open as long as possible, to not disrupt our normal day-to-day life.”

Flom said NDDOT can post images or video on its social media accounts to help keep the public informed about flooded roads, in hopes of keeping people from driving around barricades.

“Sometimes you see a barricade and the road looks fine, and it’s very dangerous to continue down that path,” he said.


A variety of drones could be used this spring depending on what kind of information the DOT is seeking. That could include still photos used to make a mosaic of the area to give officials a better understanding of the situation. More sophisticated drones would be used to relay real-time video.

“Really what we’re trying to do is give them the best tool for the job,” Flom said.

The inclusion of drones to enhance the response to an emergency extends from the relationship NDDOT and the UAS Test Site entered into in 2018. The United States Department of Transportation selected NDDOT to work with the UAS Test Site on an Integration Pilot Program. The goal of the program is to help the Federal Aviation Administration craft new rules designed to safely integrate drones into the national airspace. NDDOT is one of 10 participants in the three-year program.

The partnership is tasked with various types of drone flights, such as night flights, flying over people and flying beyond visual line of sight. The data is used to help create policy to safely advance drone operations. Flood response is the latest development of the partnership.

“This partnership is another great example of how our whole-of-government approach to natural disasters and other major events is enhancing services for North Dakota citizens,” said Gov. Doug Burgum in a press release. “Harnessing this cutting-edge technology to improve flood preparation and response efforts shows again why North Dakota is the nation’s proving ground for UAS.”

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