City approves Austin Fire Department drone study

Austin Fire Department logoAustin Fire Department eyes the skies…

On August 7th, the Austin City Council approved a four-year study on the use of robotics by the Austin Fire Department. The draft Interlocal Agreement between the City and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) was unanimously approved along with other items on the consent docket at the beginning of the meeting.

The City of Austin is partnering with TEES for robotics expertise and machines, specifically the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue [ @CRASAR ]. CRASAR is led by Dr. Robin R. Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, who appears to have literally written the book on Disaster Robotics.

Austin Fire Department (AFD) Assistant Chief Richard L. Davis has advocated for the study and will lead an 8-person team at AFD throughout its term. In 2013, he published a lengthy paper on “The Practicality of Utilizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Damage Assessments” which is available for download on FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration website.

Council Member Spelman selected the Interlocal Agreement for discussion during the City Council’s August 5th work session. That discussion begins at the 26:29 marker.

In the work session, Assistant Chief Davis and Dr. Murphy make the case for the study, including a brief video presentation. At 39:20, Council Member Morrison follows up on Council Member Spelman’s initial voicing of privacy concerns. Assistant Chief Davis emphasized that the Texas Privacy Act, enrolled during the last legislative session, governs images captured by unmanned aircraft in the state of Texas.

Additional information was formally presented in the City Council’s Q&A document for the meeting.

In part, the unattributed response to Council Member Spelman’s questions identified “public perception” as one of three main “challenges” to the use of robotics in public safety applications:

It’s imperative to establish and enforce strict policy and procedures to improve public perception and ease any community concerns. Of the utmost importance will be adhering to the Federal and State laws already in place to protect against the invasion of privacy. Participating Public Safety flight teams will only consist of highly trained individuals that have met Federal Aviation Administration standards and abide by those edicts. Educating those we serve is paramount to the success of this program.

That bolsters the Assistant Chief’s initial response during the work session at 34:05:

…it boils down to trust and reliability. I have to ask do you trust your fire department to do the right thing?

The Interlocal Agreement specifies (at IV.D) that “TEES shall retain ownership of all data collected during this Agreement but shall share that data with the City at no cost to the City, upon request.” There is recognition (at I) that “These applications could generate opportunities for enhancing multi-agency coordination,” but goes on to say “The Parties understand that the resources available from the City under this agreement are limited to the Austin Fire Department.” The Agreement is silent on the resources that CRASAR may choose to make available to other City agencies. And while the Agreement emphasizes that UAVs are the primary robotics of interest, there is no restriction on exploring use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) or other robotic platforms. During the Council work session, Assistant Chief Davis explicitly mentioned the potential of unmanned maritime vehicles to assist during flood events.

Importantly, AFD will not be acquiring an FAA Certificate of Authorization or Waiver to legally conduct drone flights, and instead will utilize the COA already granted to CRASAR.

Einstein, Pizza, and Privacy

Cat with pizza slice stuck on facePizza Cat Face in Deep Space (click for awesome)

Albert Einstein is credited with coming up with the observation that “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” He didn’t really say that, but actually said something better in 1946 as part of his celebrity endorsement of what amounted to a telegram-based crowdfunding campaign to raise $200K “to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

We could really use some of that higher level thinking on the Interwebz these days.

That’s why for the next year EFF-Austin is hosting a weekly dinner and social event on Friday evenings at Austin Pizza Garden in southwest Austin. Higher level thinking may indeed emerge from a vacuum like the quantum fluctuations alleged to froth the quantum foam, but we’d like to add a little energy to that equation by providing a predictable spacetime in which new fluctuations can emerge. So for the next year, if you’re wondering where to eat dinner or what to do on a Friday night, join us to connect and hypothesize while nom-ing on some of the best pizza and cheapest beers in Austin.

Where: Austin Pizza Garden, 6266 W Hwy 290, Austin, TX 78735
When: Every Friday at 6:30pm til ? (never later than 11pm)
What: DINNER! Pizza, Stromboli, Lasagna, Mozzarella Sticks, Draft and Bottled Beer, moar – menuPDF
What Else: CONVERSATION! And whatever else tickles our fancy. Free Wi-Fi + power so bring your devices. We’ll be upstairs in the big room.

Map of Austin Pizza Garden and Vicinity – including route recommended to avoid Oak Hill traffic, convenient bus stop, plans for world liberation

You might think there’s a definite madness in our method here – and you would be right! Unconventional times call for unconventional thinking! We propose that the creation of a safe and predictable spacetime for socializing, commiseration, and concocting may be just the kind of proposition the nutty Professor Einstein would have raised his pint to, if for no other reason than to demonstrate his post-corporeal acceptance of spooky action at a distance. We propose no agenda, only pizza and beer, and let the conversations take us where they will. Bring your questions. Bring your answers. But most importantly, bring your appetite!

EFF-Austin at Restore the Fourth ATX (Jul 4)

Gregory Foster of EFF-Austin speaks at the Restore the Fourth event in Austin, Texas (July 4, 2013) on the secret USPS Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, general warrants, and the Fourth Amendment.

Restore the Fourth