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Inspection of rock slope stability in marble quarries by using images from drone. Photo: Riccardo Salvini via Wikimedia Commons

Using Drones to Fight Floods

The dam failure disaster in Michigan in May of 2020, as horrendous as it was, is also a shining example of a new technology being used to fight floods safely. Without the use of unmanned drones, humans would have had to put themselves at grave risk in the nerve-wracking moments before the levee collapsed. Today, drones are used in many ways to predict floods, show the path of the flood in progress, and to survey the damage after the flood — all without risk to human safety. Drones are without a doubt one of the most important developments in the history of flood control.

Although drones have been around — in a very rudimentary form — since at least 1849, it is only in the past 30 years that improvements in the areas of miniaturization and computerization have enabled drones to become smaller, more agile, and most importantly — more controllable for precise maneuvers. Drones are able to fly over dams and levees that are at risk of collapse, and send back images and other information that can inform officials. In the past, it was necessary to send a human on this risky journey: to physically walk along the top of a shuddering dam to assess the situation or even to open flood gates and remove debris by hand. Many people have lost their lives in heroic efforts to prevent a dam from failing catastrophically, but today we are able to send a drone to complete the inspection and a lot more. In fact, drones can do far more than humans were ever able to do, and much, much faster.

Before drones entered the scene, helicopters were sometimes utilized to fly over suspected infrastructure trouble spots, but the shortcomings of this option are obvious. Helicopters are far more expensive to operate, and they are manned, which always carries a safety risk- especially during inclement weather. Helicopters also lack the tight maneuverability that drones can bring to the table, and since drones are much smaller, they can fly into areas that would be impossible for even the smallest manned helicopter. Drones are also able to fly much closer to the ground, can fly within feet of a threatened dam, and can send back high-definition video in real time.

Today drones are invaluable in the area of dam maintenance and inspection, roof inspection, loose hillside and avalanche inspection, and many other applications. During dam inspection sorties, drones can identify minor issues like hairline cracks and areas of hidden or hard-to-detect leakage before these issues become dangerous. They can fly very close to the face of a massive dam, covering every square foot of the surface, all the while sending back digital information from this vertical and inaccessible structure. Drones can safely inspect dams when snow-covered roads prevent close access with traditional vehicles, and they can do all this without risk to human health and safety. The only caveat regarding drone use is that they are currently prohibited by law from flying outside of the line of sight of the operator. This is an issue that may change soon as the technology becomes more fine tuned.

Drones have proven invaluable as a provider of aerial, ‘bird’s eye view’ information, but there are also specialized underwater drones that can collect and transit data from the submerged base of the dam. This underwater surveillance work, which was until recently conducted by human scuba divers, is critical to the maintenance and safety of the huge and complex hydroelectric dam systems. Underwater drones can approach particular sections of the submerged structure even while other sections remain in operation, an undertaking that would be too dangerous for human divers. With the aid of this rapidly improving technology, engineers can today identify problems with dams and levees before they result in disastrous floods downstream.


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