In mapping Colorado flooding, Falcon UAV sets example for data-driven drone journalism

Photo of damage caused in Lyons, Colo., by Falcon UAV.

Photo of damage caused in Lyons, Colo., by Falcon UAV.

Colorado is continuing to cope with massive flooding that damaged or destroyed 19,000 homes and 50 bridges, and caused 14 counties to become federal disaster areas. Since the floods began Sept. 9, the disaster has claimed 8 lives.

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Greely, Colo., to assure citizens there that government aid wouldn't come to a halt even if the government were to shut down do to the budget impasse. But earlier this month, a few Colorado towns got some unexpected help from a UAV, commonly called a drone.

Falcon UAV, a company based in Colorado which produces drones for mapping terrain, spent three days providing volunteer services to first responders in Boulder County. According to their website, the drone was able to fly at certain times when it was too dangerous to deploy a manned aircraft.

Falcon UAV released their mapping data of the September 2013 Colorado floods to the public on their website.

Falcon UAV released their mapping data of the September 2013 Colorado floods to the public on their website.

Falcon UAV didn't just provide that information to first-responders, but also released the data to the public via their website, by publishing links to a map overlay on Google Maps. A KMZ file also is available from Falcon UAV.

The value of this service shows that drones have a great deal of potential beyond simple aerial photographs, especially in times of crisis. Falcon UAV data, overlaid an easy-to-use, open mapping platform, shows damage to roads, bridges, and communities, almost in real time. 

Aerial photomaps from Falcon UAV.

Imagine you're a person in this town. How valuable would it be to know whether a certain route out of town is under water? How soon could a person use that information?

Falcon UAV is not new to the area of public outreach and volunteer drone mapping services. When a small town in Colorado famously wrote an ordinance to reward anyone who shot down a government drone, the company made a goodwill mission to demonstrate the drone, and provided high-resolution aerial mapping free of charge. 

"Most of the locals I talked to were quite happy to have me there fighting for the UAVs and common sense," wrote Falcon UAV design Chris Miser in an email. "It is only a handful of political ideologists that put this thing together and regrettably they are highly misguided on what their perception of UAVs/UASs are."