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Triumph approves emergency center at Gulf/Franklin

By Tim Croft
The Star

Another step toward Gulf Coast State College President Dr. John Holdnak’s vision to transform Gulf County into a magnet for drone technology in the region. 

The board of Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., last week gave final approval to a $5.147 million grant to GCSC to establish a Technical Center for Emergency Response and Communications at the Gulf/Franklin campus. 

Among the partners, and contributors, to the project is Skyborne Technology, based in Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe and a fully-owned subsidiary of UAV Corp. 

The total project carries a price tag of $9.9 million. 

“We feel very strongly about (the project),” Holdnak said during an earlier Triumph board meeting.  

“Eighteen months ago, we lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Michael ... This is an extension of our existing drone programs.” 

The Center would focus on recovery from hurricanes or other disasters across the eight counties disproportionally impacted by Hurricane Michael. 

“This would allow us to work with emergency managers across the region, providing up-to-date radar and images and communications,” Holdnak said last week. 

“We are so looking forward to it.” 

The goals of the project are to demonstrate the capabilities of the communications equipment; provide training to local and regional emergency operations centers; ensure the deployment of equipment and people at the direction of FEMA; and promote research and develop agreements to use the systems and technology in support of security for large events, such as a concert. 

The proposal includes acquiring a satellite mobile unit with the support equipment to serve as a communications center for present and future emergency needs in the region and train and/or certify first responders, EOC personnel, public safety students from GCSC, as well as, volunteers on the use of the equipment. 

For example, Skyborne is currently nearing completion of its tethered airship, which has the capabilities to deploy drones and serve as that communications center. 

The airship is expected to be completed in the fall. 

In addition, 250 participants in the GCSC program would become certified in emergency response and the aim is to maximize the potential of local drone companies, i.e. Skyborne, to provide coastal surveillance and minor rescue operations to individuals in risk of drowning. 

Further, the program would support and provide training to citizens in the community in the use of HAM Radio, FECD, and Pre/Post disaster safety training. 

Participants will be trained in the use of emergency equipment to form teams to support search, rescue and recovery efforts in the case of an emergency or disaster.  

The teams (EGRTs) would provide GIS capabilities and remotely sensed data as part of any mutual response for large scale events as well as back-up communications.  

The EGRTs would be trained to work as a unit using the mobile satellite communications center for regional responses during a vast variety of scenarios (e.g. the lack of traditional connectivity due to downed communication towers associated with an incident or disaster, as with Michael).  

The EGRTs could be deployed during hurricanes, forest fires, active shooter situations, oil spills, or any other disaster that would create an emergency. 

“This is an effort from our hearts and our brains to help the region,” Holdnak said. 

In addition, according to the summary, the project aims to support economic development via identifying and recruiting the best industry talent “essential to drive innovation and the creation of industry niches with high paying jobs to ensure the continuity of the project after the sixth year,” which is the end of the Triumph grant. 

Other potential applications of drone technology (such as modifying land, air and water drones by integrating infrared technology and payload capabilities) would support future economic development as well, according to the summary. 

That includes: surveillance of ditches located in rural and hard to get locations to reduce flood risks; surveillance and mapping inland in hard to get locations to identify sites for commercial, residential and conservation use; and mapping run offs to determine environmental risk. 

The program would also entail training a next generation of drone pilots to provide structural maintenance to cell phone and communication towers, oil platforms and rigs, search and rescue operations, shark and coastal preventive surveillance throughout Northwest Florida to strengthen tourism, support insurance industries during the aftermath of a natural or manmade disaster, among other components, according to the summary