My journey from academia to the use of drones in public safety and emergency response

Drones for good – finally something that makes sense. As a member of the GenX generation and a woman in her 50s from rural small-town America who went to high school in the 80s, I finally gained the confidence to step up to the STEM window and look inside. I never thought over thirty years ago that I would be interested in drones let alone be a certified pilot and called upon to lead efforts in addressing use case needs.

My path to becoming a certified pilot is probably not unlike many others. As someone with a love of photography, I decided three years ago that if I was going to keep up with changing technology and available resources I would need to consider learning about drones. That fleeting spring day has made a tremendous impact on me personally and professionally. It never even crossed my mind that there would be other ways to use a drone and I certainly did not see myself leading any efforts. It also did not occur to me that I would soon find myself as one of the only women at a meeting, on a call, or a part of a first responder group as it relates to drones.

I currently serve as an administrator on a college campus. My role is the chief of staff and assistant vice chancellor for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs at NC State University in Raleigh, NC. I have been employed by NC State for 25 years in a variety of capacities during my tenure. Recently I have stumbled into helping provide support for our drone operational efforts on campus, not because it is in my job description, but because it is needed. College campuses around the country are starting to develop UAS response teams but we have been slow adopters. Fortunately, at NC State we have a strong research and science focus and that is no different as it relates to drones. I am proud of the progress we have made.

When I first started doing research about drones it was to find something that would allow me to take great photos and videos. At the time I was not thinking about what this would look like for my professional life in higher education or public safety, but rather from my personal lens. I jumped right in and purchased a Phantom 4 Pro. Looking back I realize I did not have all of the necessary information to make an informed decision, but at the time there simply was not much available. For me, I have come to know over time that if I am going to learn something, I have to be immersed in it. And so began my journey toward education about equipment, technology, and all things drone. I have taken classes merging drone use and emergency response, mapping, and recently went through the AUVSI TOP training and am now a level 2 pilot helping NC State become a training provider.

In tandem as a higher education professional, I have also been involved with public safety in emergency medical services. I have been a volunteer with Cary Area EMS in Cary, NC for over twenty years. It has been important for me to intersect my life in higher education with my passion for community service and public safety. This has carried forward to becoming involved with disaster response efforts and more recently with the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT Inc.) and DRONERESPONDERS. AIRT, Inc. has been a part of education and training exercises in conjunction with Florida International University highlighting that academia is a critical partner when it comes to preparedness and response in emergency situations.

It did not take long after I taught myself how to fly that others started to ask questions and make requests. In the early days, it was for our incoming freshmen class photo. Recently it has been to help search for a missing person after a college football game and provide situational awareness at a protest on a sister institution’s campus. Two years ago following Hurricane Florence, I was deployed to UNC-Wilmington to assist with recovery efforts and was able to help with one of our university drones take photos and video they later used for documentation. The needs are endless and the notion of “drones for good” is starting to take hold.

People young and old are fascinated by drones. It has not mattered if I am in a park here in Raleigh, in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, on a campus during a protest, at my class reunion in my hometown, or the Amalfi Coast of Italy everyone has wanted to see what I see, or more aptly what “it” sees. As I have started to educate my peers and colleagues in higher education about “drones for good” and as a tool for response the wheels have started to turn. We are starting to realize that as institutions of higher education we cannot just do research but we also have to provide the operational support when it comes to emergency response, mapping, or damage assessment.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in March it is important to keep in mind that access for girls and young women is paramount and has not always been a focus. Institutions like NC State University, organizations like Women and Drones, AIRT, and DRONERESPONDERS are all providing more and more resources and opportunities for women. We are lucky to have the likes of Christina Koch, NC State alumna, make history recently with the longest single space flight by a woman. As I look to the future, whether it is drones or space, women are making a difference. For me, like so many others, it is not about what you see, but rather what you do with your efforts.

The first drone that I thought was just going to allow me to take a different type of photo years ago has opened many doors, changed lives, and made differences, not just for me, but the world over. Maybe I am not on the outside looking in anymore but rather inside holding the door open making sure people, in particular young girls and women, continue to come in and we keep pushing the boundaries.

Justine Hollingshead currently serves as Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice Chancellor for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs at NC State University. She is an AUVSI TOP Level II certified drone pilot and chief of staff for the DRONERESPONDERS UAS public safety organization. 

DRONERESPONDERS is the world’s fastest growing non-profit program supporting public safety UAS.  The mission is to facilitate preparedness, response and resilience using unmanned aircraft systems and related technologies rated by public safety, emergency management, and non-governmental volunteer organizations around the world. In partnership with Women And Drones, the two organizations promote awareness, training, exercises and higher education in the use of drones for good by girls and women of all ages.