Casey Calamaio with a drone control in his hands

Casey Calamaio flies a Civil Air Patrol drone as part of a UAS team of three on Florida’s Matlacha Island. The team was searching canals and destroyed structures for locations that warranted a search team investigation. The island is on the causeway that connects Pine Island to the mainland and was one of the worst-hit areas.

Courtesy Casey Calamaio

While performing recent drone search and rescue work in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Florida, a team that included a University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) researcher spotted a stranded boater who was subsequently rescued.

CAP 1st Lt Casey Calamaio, Alabama Wing director of operations for UAS, was on the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) team that pinpointed the boater. Calamaio is a research engineer in the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

“This was as real as it gets when it comes to UAS in an emergency response situation,” says Calamaio, who also supported efforts as a UAS pilot and geospatial subject matter expert. “We arrived in Florida during a period of the disaster response where it wasn't just cleanup.”

Calamaio was deployed as a UAS mission pilot under CAP's Title 10 status, which allows the federal government to use civilian force multipliers for disaster response efforts. He has been a CAP UAS mission pilot for about three years.

He joined a team from Civil Air Patrol’s Missouri Wing to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ground search and rescue efforts. At the time he arrived, survivors were still being found and the search for missing persons was the top priority, he says. UAH’s RSESC supported Calamaio in making the trip, which was eligible for military leave.

“Our UAS Research Programs under the RSESC has a long-running research focus on implementing UAS in disaster response and community resilience research,” he says.

UAH is the lead university on a program researching disaster response for the FAA’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) Center of Excellence.

“In Florida, we pushed the limits of the aircraft in ways that really demonstrated the capability of UAS as a tool in supporting large scale disaster relief efforts,” Calamaio says. “Every day was a little different, and my team had to be ready to change pace on a moment's notice depending on what the priority task was at any given time.”

Operating under several special circumstance authorizations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the team found that concurrent manned and unmanned operations made for a very active airspace.

“Deconfliction of manned and unmanned operations is still an area where improvement is needed during large-scale emergency management, but we were able to maintain high levels of safety,” Calamaio says.

Calamaio flew into Miami and drove to the CAP base of operations in a hangar in northern Naples, arriving with a government-approved UAS manufactured in the United States and used widely by the U. S. Department of Defense.

“This aircraft is a specialty unmanned system that is approved for use on federal response efforts,” he says. “We would deploy very early every morning from north Naples and drive to the Jet Blue Stadium, where the Boston Red Sox host spring training.”

The location served as one of many operations bases and emergency fuel depots.

“We would receive a location to rendezvous with the task force field operators and receive tasking on a daily basis. We would spend the entire day in the disaster zone conducting missions on behalf of FEMA and the Missouri Task Force One, then return to the airplane hangar in north Naples at night.”

Located about 30 minutes from Jet Blue Stadium, the hanger was flooded by about six inches of water before the team arrived, but still served well as its home base.

“The areas we operated in were Fort Myers Beach, Matlacha Island and causeway, Pine Island Causeway and San Carlos,” Calamaio says. “These were some of the worst-hit areas.”

Dense vegetation in the coastal mangroves in those areas made foot or boat searches difficult, and the UAS proved to be very efficient search tools.

“Our main mission sets were reconnaissance missions, aerial mapping missions, hasty searches, missing person searches and validation missions for debris or capsized boats or collapsed structures,” Calamaio says.

Data from the operations were supplied to the Missouri Task Force One geospatial team that was supporting FEMA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's (NGA) Expeditionary Operations Team. The FEMA geospatial team used the UAS data to create maps of points of interest to be followed up by search teams.

Search missions identified signs of life or remains that warranted sending out a rescue and recovery team.

specially in the dense mangroves, mapping missions collected data to derive orthomosaics, which are mosaic image products derived from stitching together multiple images.

“We served as a data collection team for these missions flying the area and providing the data to FEMA and the NGA,” Calamaio says.

“The NGA would transmit the data offsite via satellite, where hundreds of analysts were employed to create data products and search the data for anything of interest,” he says. “Early on in the relief efforts, the NGA mentioned that the CAP UAS imagery was the best quality data they were receiving from the field, and we quickly became a go-to for their team.”

Growing up in Vermont, Calamaio was in the CAP Cadet Program. He’s now a senior member of the Redstone Composite Squadron in Huntsville and a subject matter expert with the CAP National Technology Center's UAS Program and the Geospatial Program. He says he quickly found a role to support a growing UAS program in the Alabama Wing that aligned perfectly with his research focus at UAH.

Being part of the Florida UAS team provided him with excellent practical experience in the structure, resources and extent of the national incident management system, Calamaio says.

“There were FEMA task forces from all over the country who brought urban search and rescue capabilities and resources to support the relief effort,” he says. “It was an extremely enlightening opportunity to see firsthand, and I am encouraged to continue my volunteer work in this area and to pursue emergency management as a career path.”