Drone Technology in Hurricane Emergency Response

Colonel Dan Leclair
University of Maine at Augusta
First Responders Teen Cafés











Our March 23rd (2018) Teen Science Café in Oxford Hills Maine was invaded by several drones! In fact, Colonel Dan Leclair of the University of Maine at Augusta brought drones of all sizes and demonstrated how they were used following hurricanes to make maps of the damage that was caused. Later, some of us put together a drone using duct tape, while others of us practiced navigating and landing a small drone. About a third of us had already flown drones.

Even in 2012, mapping the damage caused by hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy was done with regular planes, which flew 3-member crews of pilot, co-pilot and photographer over a grid-like pattern determined by FEMA. Then, technicians electronically “stitched together” the photographs to assess damage. But things have changed dramatically with drones. Now you can simply attach the equivalent of a “go-pro” camera to the underside of a drone. This makes mapping much easier and cheaper than it would be with planes. Colonel Leclair talked about the advantages of a drone being able to go where a plane can’t go: above a hurricane, a wildfire, or a burning building. In addition to mapping the severity of the disaster, drones can deliver much-needed supplies, even portable cell-phone towers.

In fact, the uses of drones in emergency response are endless. Drones are used to:
• Assess the condition of powerlines after a storm. It’s faster and easier for a drone to see what lines are down and what needs to be fixed.
• Because all kinds of sensors can be used on drones, you can use a sensitive temperature probe to locate missing people (their temperatures are different from those of other animals).
• Police departments are using drones to reconstruct accident scenes. They can photograph the skid marks and figure out distances accurately. It makes police work at the scene far more objective.
• One of the biggest uses of drones in the country is in detecting and monitoring forest fires.

Colonel Leclair talked about how to learn to fly drones for use in emergency response. At his college, the University of Maine at Augusta, you can get a drone certificate by taking 30 credit hours, including courses in technology, photography, math, and aviation. You can do this no matter what your major is. Many community colleges are starting to offer drone programs.

Hands on Activity


Once we heard about drones, we got a chance to examine them, build one from a kit, and practice flying small “quadcopters.” You can buy a quadcopter without a camera for about $25, but the ones that Colonel Leclair used with us had fancier controls. We practiced using the throttle, yawing, launching, navigating through people’s arms, and landing on someone’s hand, which was the most difficult task of all!
We found out that it’s not that hard to build a drone from scratch, if you have the right kit and are comfortable with basic engineering.

The most important thing we learned from Colonel Leclair is that there are lots of jobs in emergency management that use drone technology, and that these jobs are not only useful and well-paying, but they don’t take many years to prepare for.

At the end of the Café, the drone hovered above us and took a group shot.  Here’s our selfie!

Selfie taken by a drone



Hurricanes show why drones are the future of disaster relief


Cell service can mean life or death after a disaster. Could drones help?




Bio on Colonel Daniel Leclair

University of Maine at Augusta

As a kid, I always liked math and science and I liked to make things.  I am a tinkerer at heart and I have put those skills to good use during my career.  After high school, I served in the U.S. Air Force, where I installed and operated electronic systems while stationed in the Philippines.  After two tours in Southeast Asia I taught others how do to this work as part of the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF). After my assignment at the CCAF was complete, I moved to Washington DC where I had the honor of working for Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush while I was assigned to the White House.  My first job at the White House was as a communications technician working in the East Wing.  After a few years, I was promoted to a post that involved traveling with the President where I completed over 500 missions all around the world. I visited all 50 states and over 120 countries while in that job.


I retired from the US Air Force after 20 years of service and then went to work as a consulting engineer for the next 25 years designing electronic systems for buildings.  Along the way I developed a passion for flying and became a pilot.  Today my work focuses on flying and building or adapting aircraft.  I received my college degree at University of Maine at Augusta, and now I direct their Unmanned Aircraft Systems program (drones) and teach students how to fly unmanned aircraft so they can use them in their work.  If you looked around my office, you’d see all shapes and sizes of drones, some of which I’ve built myself or with my team. I also get to adapt the drones, so that they fly better and don’t break down as much.


If you’re a pilot, you’re often called to help in emergencies.  As a member of the Civil Air Patrol I directed an important mission to assess the damage after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  We had 400 pilots and 80 aircraft flying in a complex pattern over the damaged area, and we took hundreds of thousands of photos.  Then, we stitched these photos together digitally, using Exif data from the meta files of the photos that were taken.  Today, we do this kind of work with drones that have cameras attached to them.  Drones can go where people can’t, which makes them especially useful during emergencies like floods, hurricanes, and fires.  To do this kind of work with drones, you need to have a commercial FAA drone pilot license.  It’s an important credential to have, and I’m working with young people through the Civil Air Patrol youth program as well as my students at the University to get more people into this field.


Now, in my spare time, I volunteer as a Search and Rescue/Disaster Relief pilot with the Civil Air Patrol, and I also volunteer with the Patient Airlift Service (PALS) to airlift patients from Maine to hospitals in the greater Boston area at no charge to citizens of Maine. As a volunteer there’s almost no limit to the interesting work that you can do in responding to disasters. It takes time and training to become good at these skills and you do not need to be a pilot, or even an adult, to start. As early as 12 years old you can join your local CAP squadron which, among numerous benefits, offers its cadets an opportunity to learn to fly during the flight academy summer camp. At camp, you start learning to fly manned aircraft in 9-days.