Andy Carroll, a 43-year-old tech company entrepreneur, was glued to his TV on Easter Sunday tracking the late-night tornadoes that were bearing down on the Tennessee Valley.
He locked in on a Hamilton County twister, part of an array of seven killer tornadoes in the region on April 12, that was headed for East Brainerd near the home of his wife Rachel's family.
"I started getting on the phone and making sure they were OK," Carroll said. "It was about 11:30 [p.m.], and I soon started to think, 'How can we help? What pieces of our technology are well suited for this?"
Carroll is co-founder and chief technical officer of Skytec, a Chattanooga company that uses airborne drones and space satellite images to provide eye-in-the-sky data to government and business clients.
It's an emerging technology that takes advantage of newly available daily satellite photos that map the entire world. When you hear about Elon Musk's SpaceX company launching privately owned satellites into space, this is one result.
Carroll, a graduate of the McCallie School and Furman University, quickly realized after the April tornadoes here that Skytec could help map the scope of damage and track the rebuilding progress using satellite images purchased from Planet Labs of San Francisco.
Pictures from earth-orbiting satellites could show the destruction caused by the EF-3 tornado that ravaged Hamilton County (which turned out to be more than 14 miles long and damaged about 1,000 buildings) in a way that drones, manned aircraft and land-based photography could not match.
Carroll's whole professional life had prepared him for this moment. He is known among associates for being a human searchlight for tech applications, and this was a perfect match.
For 18 years, Carroll ran a research lab at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga funded through a National Science Foundation grant. The grant was used to teach GIS technology, which stands for geographic information systems. Imagine a blend of satellite imagery and data analytics designed to do things like track deforestation.
"Basically, you can detect things on a landscape [from space]," Carroll explained. "It's a different perspective. You can see how healthy a forest is. You can detect a pine beetle problem. There are indicators that something is going wrong."
In 2015, Carroll and his business partner Bill Rogers, started Skytec to bring eye-in-the-sky geospatial mapping to the masses. In April, Carroll realized that it wasn't much of a leap from his everyday work to helping with local tornado relief.
Recovering from the tornado destruction would be a monthslong effort, and Skytec images could help. Early in the recovery, transportation officials used the imaging to track debris that was obstructing streets and roads. Meanwhile, forestry officials used the shot-from-space images to measure damage to the urban canopy and the resulting disruption of streams covered by environmental regulations.
The information also assisted in FEMA grant applications that will help businesses and homeowners to rebuild after the storms.
"Relatively quickly we were able to get imagery of the impact zone," Carroll said.
Carroll used his relationship with a local philanthropic organization to arrange a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation to help UTC's GIS lab continue to track progress in the impact zone until May of 2021.
"This is something that didn't exist two years ago," Carroll said. "This is a broad new way to monitor the entire planet."
To suggest a human interest story, contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com.