The Drone Pilot That Rescued Texas Flood Victims – Interview with Garrett Bryl


During last week’s flooding in Venus, Texas, there was yet another example of the amazing potential that drones have of saving lives. DJI Inspire 1 operator Garrett Bryl, who volunteers with the Joshua Fire Department, used his drone in two dramatic rescue efforts during the flooding, first to find a pickup that had been swept downstream with two occupants, and then to deliver a leader line to attempt a rescue from a floodwater engulfed house.


Garrett shares with Droneblog about his background with flying drones, and how he has been using his expertise to benefit his community through volunteering with the fire department. Maybe many more drone enthusiasts out there will follow his lead, and keep finding more ways to use drones for good!


Garrett, tell us about yourself and your background.

Name:  Garret Bryl
Residence:  Joshua, Texas
Family:  Married with 3 children
Occupation:  Senior Software Engineer with Wabtec Railroad Electronics
Previous Occupation (12 yrs):  Sr. Aerospace Software Engineer with L-3 Communications
Hobbies:  Drones, firearms, dogs, RV camping


How did you get started flying drones?

I started flying toy-grade helicopters and quadcopters several years ago.  Flying was always fun and it felt very natural to me.  About a year and a half ago, my wife Shannon suggested that since I enjoy flying the R/C, that I should consider investing in a drone with more serious capabilities.  After much research, I decided to to purchase a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, which was my first “drone” level UAS.


How long have you been using your drone and flying experience for the local fire department?

I have been flying in support of the Joshua Fire Department for about 8 months.


What kind of training and experience did you need before starting to volunteer your drone services?

Before volunteering my drone to help in emergency services, I first had to know my drone platform and operation inside and out.  Emergency situations are not for the drone operator that needs to stop and think about which controls to move or buttons to push.  Flying and operating the UAS must be second nature so that you can perform and react in emergency situations without having to stop and think about it.  Secondly, Fire Chief Wayne Baker provided a firefighter academics course that provided a fundamental understanding of the operations that the Fire Department responds to.  Third, all drone operators need to have an understanding of the FAA guidelines to operate safely within national air space while in support of emergency operations.  Lastly, there was a lot of on-site learning provided by Chief Baker and other Fire Department leadership as I began to provide them with aerial support.


What kind of drones and gear are you flying? How is that suited to your rescue/volunteer work?

I am currently flying a lightly modified DJI Inspire1.  The high definition lightbridge FPV has been extremely valuable for helping the Fire Department.  The HD FPV is used to provide a bird’s-eye view.  It has already been heavily utilized to assist in the following:

  • Storm Damage Assessment
  • HazMat Incident Scene Assessment
  • Aerial view of Building Fires
  • Aerial view and Scene Assessment of Wildland fires
  • Lost Person Search
  • Swiftwater Rescue Search
  • Swiftwater rope deployment
  • Swiftwater Scene Assessment


The first modification to the Inspire1 is the addition of an Aerial Delivery System (ADS) that can transport items such as a life jacket, 2-way communication radio, rescue line, & life supporting medicine to stranded victims in an event such as Hurricane Katrina.


The second modification is the ability to carry a 775 lumen spot/search light.  Used in conjunction with the Inspire1 FPV to search during low light conditions.


Lastly, we have thermal vision capabilities.  We are still hopeful that DJI or a 3rd party will provide a system integrated Inspire1 thermal camera/gimbal solution but what we have works for now.


Can you share a story about an event/incident where your drone was crucial?

The most dramatic story is the recent swift water floods in Texas where the drone was a major role player.


On May 17th, 2015 the Joshua Fire Department UAS-177 “Valkyrie” was instrumental in the rescue and saving of 4 lives in Texas swift water flooding. UAS-177 is a modified DJI Inspire1.

During the first incident, the victims were driving a maroon pickup truck and plunged into rushing water covering the road. The pickup was washed approx. 750 ft. downstream and rammed into heavily flooded tree foliage. Rescue workers had been searching for well over 30 minutes but could not locate the vehicle. Suspicions were rising that the vehicle was completely submerged and the victims deceased. Upon arrival (approx. 6:00am), Joshua Fire Chief, Wayne Baker requested that UAS-177 begin an aerial search for the lost vehicle and/or victims. Within seconds, the 775 lumen spot light carried by UAS-177 illuminated a tail light reflector which was observed through the Lightbridge live feed and the victims were found. The Incident Commander immediately deployed a small red rescue hovercraft to recover the victims. Both were rescued alive.


UAS-177 had not even landed from the first rescue when Joshua Fire Department was dispatched to yet another swift water incident just a few miles away from the first. This is the incident that was highly publicized by the media. In this rescue, Bill and Tracey Kastel awoke to their home being completely surrounded by rushing flood waters. It was very possible that the house foundation could begin to shift and Chief Baker knew it was imperative to provide a rescue line to the victims first. With hundreds of feet of water between dry land and their house the decision was made to deliver a “leader line” with UAS-177. The delivery was successful and the larger rescue line was then pulled with the UAS delivered leader line. There were rescue attempts using a rescue raft and rescue line but the waters were moving too fast with dangerous obstacles preventing a floatation rescue, so a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter was called in for an airlift extraction.



What was it like flying in the flood conditions to help out Bill and Tracey Kastel?

I would describe the flood water rescue experiences as serious, yet exciting.  The Kastel rescue was the first time that we had delivered a leader line in a real incident.  We had trained the scenario many times at the fire station but this time it was for real and lives could very well depend on it.  The leader line delivery and subsequent rescue line delivery went just as we had trained.


Was there any danger to Bill and Tracey from your drone?

There was really no more danger to the Kastels than briefly flying a drone overhead.  The leader line was flown over Bill and then lowered down to him.  In addition, during a rescue like that, we use a 3 pound breakaway on the leader line in case of an unforeseen object or even the victim grabbing or pulling on the rescue line.  A downed drone can’t help anyone.  Any small danger imposed by a drone delivered rescue line is certainly miniscule compared to the danger imposed by the swift waters that engulfed the Kastel house.


How did you mount the searchlight?

The searchlight is a 775 lumen spot light mounted with an aluminum bracket that I custom made.  The aluminum bracket utilizes a picatinny rail and 3M dual lock to mount to the belly of the fuselage.


Did the rain damage the drone?

No damage whatsoever.  The DJI Inspire1 is not advertised for a rain environment but if you examine the aerial platform, you will quickly see that it’s very well suited for such an environment.  The ESCs are completely enclosed, using heat sinks for cooling and all of the electronics unexposed, shielded by fuselage cowlings.  I believe the highest risk component was the camera/gimbal but I didn’t experience any problems with it either.  UAS-177 has flown flawlessly for many hours since the flood water rescues.


How else did you use your drone for rescue efforts during the recent flooding?

It was used to search for other potential stranded flood victims.  A few days later, it was also used to assess post-flood damage to help the Joshua City management if there is a terrain grading problem that needs to be addressed.  The aerial view clearly shows water flow paths that can’t be observed from the ground.


What advances in drone technology are you excited about?

I am most excited about advancements in thermal imaging, zoom cameras, FPV improvements, and battery improvement for extended flight time.


Thank you so much for the work you’re doing, using drones for good! Is there anything else you wanted to share?

I would just like to encourage any other drone operators out there that have the skills and time to please volunteer to their local emergency services.  Drones can make a big difference in helping other people.  Keep flying for fun but step out and make a difference in your community as well.



Image Credit: Garrett Bryl
Video: Youtube

Vali Ciobanu

World traveler, husband to an amazing wife, founder of Droneblog, co-founder to a sweet baby girl. Making the world a better place one drone at a time, by sharing your story.

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