An RQ-4 Global Hawk takes off in 2010 from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Air force is using the unmanned aircraft to collect images and coordinate aid in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines. (Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson / Air Force)
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Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawks are being flown in response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, collecting imagery to help find people in need and coordinate aid.
The drone was able to launch within two hours of initial orders, and as of Nov. 19 had flown three missions, taking 300 images over 50 hours, said Maj. Ryan Simms, the chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and remotely piloted aircraft policy in the headquarters Air Force executive action group.
“Because of the lead time associated with this typhoon, we were able to get our ducks in a row and put an aircraft on station in a much faster way,” Simms said at an event in Washington, D.C.
Lessons learned in previous disasters also contributed to the faster response.
The Global Hawk flew its first surveillance mission responding to a natural disaster in 2007. That year, an RQ-4 was tasked with flying over a large fire in Southern California to assist firefighters. The initial mission raised issues of privacy and air space integration, Simms said, but it showed the potential of using unmanned aircraft to help respond to homeland disasters.
Remotely piloted aircraft “are a game changer for civil operations in United States airspace,” Simms said. “I know we have to be respectful for people’s privacy, and there are legal ways we can do that.”
Three years later, a Global Hawk in California answered an international call for help in responding to the Haiti earthquake. There, it helped track camps of survivors, assess infrastructure and identify landing areas for aid helicopters.
“Haiti was the first mission abroad with the Global Hawk,” Simms said. “It solidified our ability to go abroad.”
Similarly, a Global Hawk responded to the 2011 earthquake in Japan, where it helped assess infrastructure and take critical readings of the Fukushima power plant.
The experience from these missions is helping to standardize plans for Global Hawks to respond to disasters more quickly, Simms said. “When you have a plane that can fly 6,000 miles for 30 hours, it becomes a useful tool for any type of disasters that can happen,” he said.
The smaller, more controversial Predator also has a role in disaster response.
In August, an MQ-1B Predator assigned to the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard responded to the Rim Fire that burned near Yosemite National Park.
Flying out of March Air Reserve Base, the aircraft took real-time video of the fire’s progression and helped firefighters plan their attack.