It's clear that drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already an important piece of technology for the fire service and for emergency responders. Check out this commentary on drones and UAV's in the fire service from our good friend Chris Ingram, the Fire Captain over at Santa Clara County Fire Department.
Most often, drones and UAVs are in the news with the fire service as a negative. For example, drones being piloted by hobbyists have made incursions into wildfire-restricted airspace and have grounded firefighting aircraft until the drone or UAV has left the area, meaning that in some cases firefighters see them as a nuisance more than a help. In other cases, Public Safety Agencies have embraced the tech, using these platforms to assist with search and rescue and situational awareness. These efforts are in the early stages, plagued with tricky and ever-changing regulations, policy and requirements for these uses. Regardless, drones are here to stay. They are an important part of the safety of responders and the fire service must get on board with the issue or potentially be left behind in this world of ever-changing technology. On the balance, the potential contribution this technology can make will drive its adoption, and we will continue to see these UAVs become more and more important to the fire service as well as other emergency responders.
The Current State of Affairs
As useful as they are, fire departments are not automatically eligible to fly drones. A local department for example needs special permission from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to fly a drone, and as it stands, the FAA isn't exactly handing out licenses to fire departments and other government agencies quickly. The process is complex and changing, full of technical terms like PAO COA (Public Aircraft Operations Certificate of Authorization), the FAA’s 14 CFR Part 107, etc. Although permission to fly in the national airspace are complex waters to navigate, it is usually worth the effort to be able to use such a powerful tool. Here is a great (recent) article from Fire Engineering that spends the time and text to outline the certification process Public Safety Agencies will need to follow.
The bigger picture to keep in mind is that UAS technology provides an amazing set of tools for Public Safety, and is an emerging best practice to support emergency operations, natural disasters, all-hazards intel, crew resource management, water rescue operations, and many more. The variety of sensor payloads has expanded from GoPro’s to thermal and chemical sensors. And the flight times and multiple-aircraft teamwork have vastly improved.
In our assessment of the current state of the UAS union – we note that another of the primary limiters of wide spread adoption are privacy policies and airspace de-confliction – also known as Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM). We have found that Law Enforcement is way ahead of the Fire Service in terms of creating a proper legal and policy framework for governing appropriate uses of UAS operation, and that the Fire Service is more progressive in the operational deployment of drones. They tend to be much more aggressive about developing and deploying the tech with good Concept of Operations documentation and training.The bottom line thought is that this technology offers too much potential and efficiency - so it is not going away and everyone should take advantage of this technology.
Currently, members in the fire service that DO have the licenses required and permission from the FAA are using these devices to search for missing people, monitor traffic incidents, scope out wildland fires, search in remote locations, and operate in extreme conditions, which makes them a go-to when it comes to protecting our firefighters. Drones and UAVs can go places that firefighters may not be able to go, or areas that are too congested to assess from the ground.
However, the folks with these licenses are primarily taking advantage of the drone's video downlink capability, which will show you what the drone sees in real time. The downlink provides excellent and unmatched situational awareness which can help firefighters make the correct decisions for their safety and the safety of others, but there is still much more to take advantage of.
We live in a world where we have a constant flow of newer and better technologies at our disposal. If we get serious about extending the use of these tools, the possibilities are really endless. We see several interesting trends emerging. Agencies are adding new and interesting sensors to these drones for all kinds of mapping purposes. We have seen the expansion of sensors from normal photo and video cameras to Thermal, Multi and Hyperspectral imagers. Some of these are self explanatory, like the thermal camera which is used to find heat. The others are really really interesting, like hyperspectral cameras that can map and identify things far beyond the visual spectrum – actually identifying objects on a molecular level. For wildland fire mitigation – these sensors are great for aerial surveys that can tell the differcence between wood, asphalt, and tile roofs. Or find invisible chemical releases.
Another trend we are tracking is the ability to process imagery and video on-board the aircraft and transmit the signal down to the cloud. While there are many UAS payloads that can shoot images, fewer are able to send that video directly down. But it is not uncommon for the UAS to be able to use proprietary tech to link down to the operator (think DJI Lightbridge). But what we have seen and are excited by is the actual processing of sensor data on the UAS, and sending results and targets and information back to the ground that is seamlessly picked up in the cloud and transformed into data streams and map services. A simpler way to describe it is this: from the time of the image capture from the drone – to the perimeter of the fire, or the chemical plume mapped on our tablets – can be accomplished in less than 15 seconds. To us – that means that data captured from the drone is actionable – not a history lesson. And more importantly, it means that the information can be folded into our common operating platforms and widely shared operationally – giving it relevance as current intel that is easily used by fire and law enforcement. So the trend is to capture many more types of information, process and share them in near-real time, and thus make the technology useful – not just fun for the pilot. Getting information in real time in order to enhance the safety of firefighters and other safety responders, as well as citizens, is the trend we applaude because it saves lives and property – our fundamentals.
Finally, we note that with the development of Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) that NASA and others are supporting. We see the real potential for multi-drone, multi-platform intel support in the national airspace. As dry a technology topic as there may be, getting permission and operating in crowded airspace with drones seems like a fundamental building block to us. One that may not be sexy, but still offers the promise of many sensors and platforms in the same airspace, bringing a crucial control element to bear that will allow us to maximize the drone tech and taking it much further than the “hobbyist” stage we find ourselves in today.
We know you are interested in this topic – so feel free to share resources in the comments. Or let us know which departments do the best with their drone programs. Feel free to share here – or contact us to share information.
Editor's Note: To our guest blogger Chris Ingram: A huge thanks are in order for the provided insight on the use of drones in the fire service. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to help us shed some light on the subject.