Paige Fitzgerald//Luigi Ciuffetelli
A couple years ago, Fitzgerald—supervisor of terrorism preparedness at the Delaware Emergency Management Agency—was put in charge of the agency’s drone program. The Cape Henlopen High and UD grad embraced the role. Now she can’t envision a world without the popular aircraft.
What was your first experience with a drone?
It was when we were doing pilot qualification training as part of the statewide drone training program. I was the only person there who had never flown. Everyone else had been a hobbyist or already had a program that was up and running. It got overlooked that I had no idea what I was doing, and they threw a drone in my hands.
Did you crash it?
No. We’re really, really lucky. The Wilmington Police Dept. has had a drone program for three years and their head drone guy, Adam Ringle, noticed I was about to have a panic attack. So he took me under his wing and taught me a lot about flying in the first couple hours I was there.
How did you wind up being responsible for drones when you had no experience?
They are actually a small part of my job. DEMA was looking at drone technology a couple years ago and the person who had my job before me was a hobbyist. He was excited to do the research and conceptualize the program. When he left, drones landed in my column.
What does DEMA use drones for?
We use them for environmental mapping, damage assessment, to inspect buildings and bridges. Places where there’s been damage and they’re hard to get to.
You guys don’t call them drones. There’s a technical term.
UAV is unmanned aerial vehicles, but the newer term is UAS, which is unmanned aerial system. That means not just the aircraft itself, but the hand controller … the whole system from top to bottom.
Please share an example of how a drone has made things easier for the agency.
A tornado touched down last year near Laurel and the National Weather Service wanted to come in and verify that it was actually a tornado. So we took the drone out and partnered with the weather service in the field. We went to a farm that was damaged. From the ground it looked like scattered debris. It would have taken a long time to analyze it. Within one minute, the drone showed us there was a circular debris pattern, obviously there was a swirl involved, and that was definitely a tornado. They were able to use our data in the field in real time and cut hours and hours off their analysis. So we didn’t have to take out a helicopter or small plane, things that cost thousands of dollars.
Do you have a drone of your own?
I do. I have a DJI Spark, which is the tiny, baby-sized one. I will eventually get myself a bigger, badder, cooler drone.
Why should I get a drone?
They’re just really fun to fly. It’s cool to look at the things you’ve always seen and the things that you thought you knew from walking on the ground. Looking at it from above is just a whole new level. You will also be a part of a really good group of people. It’s going to be ridiculous at some point—like cellphones and the Internet. People may say, “I can’t see it catching on at all.” At this point, they’ve got drones that fold up and fit in my purse. They’re everywhere. It’s going to be hard to function in a world where you don’t understand the applications, the technology. People used to take Polaroid camera pictures. Now you take drone camera selfies. If you aren’t keeping up with that stuff, you’re going to be left behind at some point.