Florida State drone team assists Surfside condo collapse site
A team of drone experts from Florida State University have been in the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside for three weeks.
It plays a vital role in capturing more than 35,000 images which it hopes will help incident commanders attempt to determine the origin of the collapse.
“Honestly, the entire three weeks have been a blur,” said David Merrick, director of the emergency management and homeland security program at FSU and the Center for Disaster Risk Policy.
“Everyone involved would really prefer to have a happier ending and now we’re just hoping to help NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) determine the cause so that it doesn’t happen again.”
The FSU Center Unmanned Aircraft Systems Team was deployed by the state’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force on June 25, a day after the appalling collapse of the 12-story tower .
The team was brought in to activate their use of drone technology, first to help with possible localization of units and survivors, and now by taking footage that follows the post-demolition process.
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As of Thursday afternoon, 97 bodies had been found. The entire tower has since been demolished with 18 million pounds of concrete and debris removed.
The team works from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at least; As of Thursday, he had worked with other teams to conduct more than 258 missions, producing 35,000 images.
“We have two jobs, right now,” Merrick told the Democrat. “The first is that we continue what we have been doing for 20 days, we continue to build 2-dimensional maps and 3-dimensional models of the collapsed site, twice a day. At first, for the first two weeks, it was done every two hours. “
Initially, this mapping information supported the efforts of the state’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force “on the locations of people and conditions on the ground,” Merrick said.
“Now we are continuing this work, but it is also going to investigate why the building collapsed,” he said. This investigation is being conducted by NIST.
“The drone flies, takes a series of images, and then we put them together into a map very similar to what you would see on Google Map or Google Earth,” said Merrick, who led the FSU center for four years.
Initially, Merrick was joined by geography researcher and doctoral student Austin Bush and CDRP researchers Justin Adams and Rayne Hawkins.
Bush and Hawkins have since returned to Tallahassee, and Jarrett Broder, director of special projects, and Laura Hart, doctoral student and program coordinator, have joined the team.
While the work is important, being there was an emotional experience. The FSU team is expected to be released early next week.
“It’s incredibly tragic,” Merrick said solemnly. “In summary, we’ve been working for three weeks and there hasn’t been any rescue since the first night, so it’s wreaking havoc. It wreaks havoc on everyone at the scene; the reality of what it means.
Merrick said the site is occupied by around 400 people from various federal, state and local agencies and private contractors. There are excavation equipment and cranes operated by crews “working to dig to the bottom of the foundation of this building.”
The hope is to find answers, he said.
“We are well advanced in the demolition and we are going through the heap little by little. It’s dark work, ”Merrick said. “It is a fierce determination to do it; have debris cleaned up, have all casualties identified and as many closures as possible for families. “
The FSU team has previously been called in to help with natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas in August 2017 and Hurricane Michael on the Florida Panhandle in October 2018.
Other service calls involved wildfires, flooding and even a volcano in Hawaii in 2018, but this is his first test during a structural collapse. The images the team uses to create digital maps can be downloaded to phones or tablets used by FEMA teams. The technology gives response teams the advantage of using real-time data and images.
Merrick said the team made four to five flights a day, depending on weather conditions. The rain in recent days has been difficult, he said.
“We went three weeks without a day off, so it’s taking its toll,” he said. “We document everything that is done, good and bad. We spent three weeks observing and documenting a massive salvage operation. “
Broder, deputy director of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy and research faculty member, has led research teams nationally and internationally.
He said the FSU team had been able to respond to all requests received on the spot, which now includes the use of technology to calculate the volume of debris that has been removed.
Unlike in the case of hurricanes where the amount of destruction can be widespread, the condominium site is a “concentrated smaller footprint”.
“If we weren’t doing what we’re doing, the command team wouldn’t receive detailed updates as often as they get them,” Broder said. “The most important thing we have been able to do is capture consistent images so that precise progress can be observed. I’m just trying to help get things back to normal as quickly as possible.
The FSU team is at least Tallahassee’s second response team deployed to Surfside.
Just days after the building collapsed, members of the Tallahassee Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), also known as Florida Task Force 7, were deployed for seven days. .
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at [email protected] or on Twitter @byrondobson.
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