Tornado Drone Aids Recovery Teams After Disasters

By STEPHEN PETERSON, The Sun Chronicle | November 6, 2018

The small device soared to nearly 250 feet, cruising and hovering over the part of town where a tornado was believed to have landed late Tuesday afternoon.

It was a drone, which was being used late Thursday morning to assess the path and damage of the suspected twister by taking hundreds of photographs.

Local firefighter Samuel Nelson, who has a drone business in Lakeville, Mass., where he lives, was operating the drone in the Mansfield Avenue (Route 140)/Reservoir Street area near Norton Reservoir.

Nelson had been approached by Fire Chief Paul Schleicher about using one of his three drones for the storm investigation, and he was all in.

Schleicher, Police Chief Brian Clark and Fire Capt. Jason Robbins accompanied Nelson to the area, launching the drone from property at 50 Mansfield Ave., near where some of the worst damage took place Tuesday.

Most of the damage was downed trees, limbs and utility wires, but a garage was heavily damaged as was a pickup truck.

“I was surprised by the extent of the damage,” Nelson said after viewing the damage in person and through photos from the drone.

“It’s not something we typically see around here and I see from the air, so it was definitely interesting to see.”

Experts with the National Weather Service, which has its regional office in Norton, visited Wednesday and declared a tornado had landed in the area.

Nelson used information from the weather service and damage reports from firefighters and police to program a flight path or grid for the drone.

“I ended up making a map,” Nelson said.

The drone flew for about 20 minutes but in that time it was able to take 256 photos.

“It went very well,” Nelson said, adding of the photos, “they’re looking good. We were able to look at the path and extent of the damage and how the area recovered.”

It took a few hours to process the photos and compile them into a compilation photo. He has to put his data processing skills to work for that.

Nelson hopes to sell some of the photos to the weather service.

The weather service is still investigating and reviewing its findings but has estimated wind speeds from the tornado it determined touched down on Freeman Street and traveled northeast to Reservoir Street ranged from 90 to 95 mph. Those speeds place the tornado on the low end of the spectrum for such storms.

Last month, Nelson used his drones for three days to help the National Transportation Safety Board view home, building and gas transfer station damage in the Merrimack Valley caused by natural gas explosions.
“Using them locally is kind of interesting,” Nelson said of Thursday’s work.

Nelson had served on the Plainville Fire Department for 14 years before joining the Norton Fire Department a few years ago.

It was with the Plainville department that he started a search and rescue drone program that was one of the first Federal Aviation Administration- authorized drone programs in Massachusetts.

Nelson has been a licensed FAA commercial remote pilot for two years. That allows him to fly unmanned, small fixed wing aircraft that can cover miles of territory for about an hour at a time.

He is also a member of FAA’s SafetyTeam, or FAASTEAM.

As for his drone business, Aerial Integration Consulting, started in June 2017 and which provides services to government agencies and others, Nelson said “it’s been extremely busy and successful.”

One client is the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.

Last March, he assisted the division assessing storm flooding damage in the Quincy area and had to get clearance to fly drones in Logan Airport airspace.

Nelson has been flying drones for about 20 years, long before they became popular with hobbyists and professionals and the technologically savvy.

“I started flying remote controlled helicopters and planes as a preteen,” Nelson said, and that hobby combined with an interest in photography made drone flying a natural step. “I loved it,” he said.

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