Drones Change the Face of Recon for Fire Service

 W.S. Darley & Company makes the Stinger, a 36- by 25- by 16-inch drone that can carry a camera or sensors and is powered by six vertically opposed motors. (Photos courtesy of W. S. Darley Company.)
W.S. Darley & Company makes the Stinger, a 36- by 25- by 16-inch drone that can carry a camera or sensors and is powered by six vertically opposed motors. (Photos courtesy of W. S. Darley Company.)
Darley’s Stinger has 15 to 40 minutes of flight time, depending on the type of payload it is carrying.
Darley’s Stinger has 15 to 40 minutes of flight time, depending on the type of payload it is carrying.
 The cDUV drone, made by Honeywell First Responder Products, weighs less than 4.4 pounds, has a ceiling of 15,000 feet, and has a maximum speed of 40 mph. It’s radio frequency control range is 3,280 feet. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell First Responder Products.)
The cDUV drone, made by Honeywell First Responder Products, weighs less than 4.4 pounds, has a ceiling of 15,000 feet, and has a maximum speed of 40 mph. It’s radio frequency control range is 3,280 feet. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell First Responder Products.)

Size-up and reconnaissance are important tasks for incident commanders (ICs) to perform at any fire scene to best deploy available resources. Many times, fireground commanders wish they could have an eye in the sky to give them an overview of the scene and a clear picture of what they’re facing. Two companies—Honeywell and W.S. Darley & Company—offer ICs exactly that capability and more through helicopter-like drones.

The cDUV

“Fire department chiefs tell us it’s an advantage to having a gods-eye view of what’s taking place in a fire,” says Tony Wyman, vice president of marketing for Honeywell First Responder Products. “That’s what our commercial Ducted Unmanned Vehicle (cDUV) can give them, flying overhead, giving them an overview of the scene.”

Wyman notes that a commander might send the cDUV into an area where he might be reluctant to send firefighters, for instance, into a chemical fire. But, by sending in a cDUV, the chief can use an aircraft with sensors on it that identifies what kinds of chemicals are in the air because of the incident.

The cDUV is “about the size of a large pizza with four legs,” Wyman says, weighing less than 4.4 pounds with a single battery source powering an engine that turns two fan rotors. The cDUV fits inside a 36- by 18- by seven-inch transport case.

Flight Capabilities

The unit has a ceiling of 15,000 feet, a rate of climb of 20 feet per second, a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour (mph), and a radio frequency (RF) range of 3,280 feet. It can hover for 40 minutes and carry a maximum payload of 1.7 pounds. Honeywell is developing a new battery to extend the cDUV’s current battery life of 30 minutes to 2 hours. “The 4.4-pound weight limit is a critical number because you can fly it without filing a flight plan if it’s less than 4.4 pounds,” Wyman says. “There’s legislation pending to allow a vehicle under 4.4 pounds to fly almost anywhere.”

The cDUV can hover, is programmed to stop and self correct its position if the operator stops controlling it, and is programmed to self correct if the wind blows it out of position. It can be operated at night, in the rain, and in fog but is limited to flying in winds of 17 mph or less.

Wyman notes that the cDUV can be outfitted with plug-and-play payloads such as a gimbal and stabilized digital video camera; an electro-optical infrared camera; and chemical, biological, and radiological sensors. “It’s customizable to the scenario so the operator can bring the aircraft back down and put different sensors or cameras on it, depending on the scenario,” Wyman observes.

He notes that wildland firefighters always want to survey where a fire is moving, and the cDUV could be used to scout out occupied areas that might be in the path of the fire and identify areas that firefighters could defend. “The aircraft also could drop radio repeaters, say at the top of a hill, instead of putting a firefighter with a radio up there,” Wyman says. “The aircraft also could fly batteries, radios, or other small gear to a firefighter high in a building.”

Wyman notes that response to the cDUV has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that Honeywell will soon decide on moving the cDUV out of the prototype stage.

The Stinger

W.S. Darley & Company offers the Stinger drone, says Peter Darley, chief operating officer and head of the Stinger project. “We think there’s a growing interest for using drones in the fire service,” Darley says, “because an aircraft like the Stinger can provide more and better information about an incident—about the structure, what’s burning, and where firefighters are located exactly. Stinger is a tool that can be used at a variety of types of incidents, from fires and rescues to hazmat situations.”

Ted Van Slyck, one of Stinger’s developers, says, “Fire chiefs want to get their hands on it and use it in practical applications. We had a Chicago chief tell us he wants to use it to go up the outside of a building and look into a window to give him a report on fire spread.”

Mike Mocerino, the Stinger’s other developer, says wildland firefighters “would like to shoot it a couple hundred feet into the air over a fire and see for miles, even from horizon to horizon.”

Stinger Specs

The Stinger is 36 by 25 by 16 inches, weighs six pounds without batteries, and sports a carbon fiber two-millimeter frame. Payloads include a camera or a radiation sensor. Flight time is 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the payload.

Mocerino notes that the Stinger has three camera options available: a nonzoom HD digital camera, an HD digital camera with zoom, and a thermal imaging camera. “Right now we’re optimizing the cameras for weight but, in the future, we intend to offer the ability to carry dual cameras,” Mocerino says. “All the camera choices are gyro-stabilized, so even in a wind, there’s no jostling of the image.”

Van Slyck says the Stinger is powered by six motors vertically opposed. “Three face up and three down, and they counter rotate,” he says. “That means three are accelerating while the other three are decelerating. It’s different from a traditional helicopter that uses a tail rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor. Our drone’s motors cancel each other’s torque.”

The case that holds the Stinger in ground transit serves as its command post, Mocerino points out. A large LCD screen attached inside the case receives and displays the live feed from the drone. “The Stinger system also has a backpack unit with goggles that receives its feed,” Mocerino notes. “The goggles are like a heads-up display used by fighter pilots but are designed to block out the sun for better visibility.”

Situational Awareness

Both the cDUV and the Stinger were introduced at FDIC 2011. Wyman suggests what might be one of the strongest reasons for the use of drones in the fire service: “The value in an aircraft like this is the ability of the fire service to put a machine at risk instead of human beings,” Wyman says. “And, it gives the commander situational awareness he might otherwise not have.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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