BY ALAN M. PETRILLO
Drones continue to make their way onto fire apparatus for deployment at incident scenes. Fire departments are using drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for recon of wildfires and motor vehicle accident scenes, hazmat incidents, hot spot identification at structure fires, and even in rescue scenarios.
ADVANTAGES OF DRONES
Rod Carringer, former chief of the Center Township (IN) Fire Department, says, “With the demands on limited staffing so many agencies deal with, any asset such as a drone that can be used to provide real-time situational and operational awareness is equipment that should be integrated into operations. As the United States Marines are learning as they are reconfiguring their basic squad size and function to integrate a drone system, maximizing technology to do our job better and safer is the new normal.”
Carringer points out that besides the recon function and hot spot identification, additional uses for drones include search and rescue, even in urban settings; preplanning with aerial photos and video identifying water supply sources, utility shutoffs, and apparatus location planning; winter and ice rescue; and disaster assessment and post-disaster recon after weather events such as floods or tornados.
The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has been deploying tethered drones at incident scenes since March 2017, says John Hodgens, deputy assistant chief of operations. “We primarily fly HoverFly tethered drones that carry both video and infrared cameras, and their greatest feature is allowing us to see where a fire is traveling in a roof space,” Hodgens says.
“We have three HoverFly drones and recently got a nontethered DJI Phantom that gives us a better capability for hazardous materials incidents and search and rescue. We also plan on getting a DJI Matrice 210,” Hodgens says. “We had a situation during Hurricane Sandy where people were on the roofs of their homes. With a Phantom or a Matrice 210, we could very quickly take a look at the situation and know how many resources we needed. However, the big advantage to the HoverFly tethered drones is that they have a constant power source and are able to give us broad, very clear pictures.”
Hodgens oversees the command tactical unit that handles the drones and which is dispatched out of the FDNY’s command center on a second alarm or higher or other noteworthy incidents. The unit, which operates through a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificate of Authorization (COA), currently has eight FAA Part 107 certified pilots. A pilot is on duty every day, Hodgens points out, on a four-day cycle.
“Our pilots try to give the incident commander (IC) a view of the building that the IC cannot see—the rear of the building or the roof level,” he says. “The drone is able to assess fire travel, structural issues like cracks in a building or danger of collapse, and roof operations to determine if anything is unsafe and needs corrective action. We all are concerned with firefighter safety and getting a better view of an incident, and drones are great tools to use to your best advantage.”
MILLSTONE VALLEY (NJ) FIRE DEPARTMENT EXPERIENCE
Stephen Stashek, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) program coordinator for the Millstone Valley (NJ) Fire Department in Franklin Township Fire District No. 1, says his department uses DJI drones, including the Phantom 3, Phantom 4, Inspire 1, Mavic, and Matrice 210 models. Stashek says that his district covers a lot of woods and hiking trail areas. “We have an off-road search and rescue team that uses Polaris Ranger utility terrain vehicles and a 4×4 brush truck but realized how practical a drone would be,” he says. “We connected with Skyfire Consulting, which gave us a lot of good information on setting up a drone program, and the first year we had multiple calls for lost hikers whom we found using the drones.”
Millstone Valley also has used its drones on special call from the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, Stashek points out. “They’ve called us out for both prescribed burns and also uncontrolled wildfires,” he says. “We were able to determine where the fire lines were as well as the areas burned and where the fire was heading.”
STARTING A DRONE PROGRAM
Departments considering starting a drone program should do an assessment of how they want to use a drone, Carringer says. “First, I would offer that to properly implement a drone strategy in a fire department, you should really have folks who are licensed to the FAA Part 107 certification,” he says. “Next, they should assess what they want to use a drone for, create operational guidelines, and take training and maintenance of equipment as seriously as if it were a self-contained breathing apparatus.”
“The FAA classifies three categories of drone use in the United States,” points out Mike Mocerino, robotics business development manager for W.S. Darley & Co. These are hobbyist, commercial use, and public use. “For commercial use, a business needs a Part 107 license to operate a drone,” Mocerino says. “Part 107 entails taking a written FAA test at an FAA testing facility to get an airman’s operator certificate. For public use, which includes governmental agencies, the first step is getting a Declaration Letter from the municipality, and then the FAA gives them online access for a COA application. The COA application defines the area of operation, what the drone is being used for, when it’s being used, how pilots are trained, and preflight procedures that must be done. Then a COA is issued that gives parameters on how high the drones can be flown and where.”
Peter Darley, Darley’s chief operating officer, says that “using drones makes a dangerous job less dangerous by giving firefighters and incident commanders better situational awareness. But, a department needs all the guidelines, protocol, and standards in place to implement a drone program, which all takes time. However, I think in a few years most fire departments will use drones because they are such viable, multipurpose tools.”
Matt Sloane, founder and chief executive officer of Skyfire Consulting, says his company helps fire departments identify their drone needs and can put together an entire program for them. “We currently are working with fire departments in Orlando, Florida; Los Angeles City, California; Houston, Texas; and Miami-Dade County, Florida; as well as smaller departments in Iowa and Indiana,” Sloane says. “These departments have varied needs, but typically drones can be used for everything, from fire surveillance, identifying hot spots and giving 360-degree views, search and rescue, hazardous materials recon, and fire scene and motor vehicle accident reconstruction.”
Romeo Durscher, director of public safety integration for DJI, says that a main advantage to using a drone “is it can be sent to the other side or top of a building to give a view where the commander might not have access. Or, the drone could be set up 10 to 20 floors to get eyes on a scene up there.”
Durscher says DJI’s Matrice platform has become a favorite with fire departments because the drone can be customized with sensors and payloads. “We can have a second-generation thermal camera and a visible light camera side by side,” he says. “This is the Zenmuse XT2 camera we developed in partnership with FLIR. It has the option of regular view, infrared, side by side, picture in a picture, or thermal image overlay on top of the visible light image.”
INSTANTEYE ROBOTICS DRONES
InstantEye Robotics introduced its GEN5 UAV 8.8-ounce unit, a nano drone that carries an integrated infrared and electro/optical camera, according to Chris Pickett, customer relations manager. “It’s small enough that it can go from outdoors to indoors, giving added capability to fire departments,” Pickett points out. “It uses stabilization that doesn’t require GPS, has a 15- to 20-minute flight time, a one-hand controller, and a tablet for video display.”
InstantEye’s GEN4 drone is a 3.4-pound aircraft that has a digital data line and line-of-sight operation of up to 1.2 miles, says Pickett. “The GEN4 is being upgraded in January 2019 and converted to a digital format that can be displayed on a tablet or laptop,” he says. “And, we recently came up with new payloads for the GEN4 where it can lift up to four pounds, allowing it to drop medical gear, water, or a water throw raft to victims.”
LOCKHEED MARTIN INDAGO
Lockheed Martin builds the Indago line of vertical takeoff unmanned aerial systems, according to Michael D. Carlson, Indago program manager. “These are small units weighing 4.4 pounds that have been used by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives in investigating arson fires and also by others, especially law enforcement, for search and rescue,” Carlson points out. “For search and rescue, we partner with Project Lifesaver International, where we integrated an antenna on Indago that can find an individual wearing a beacon similar to a FitBit. The signal gets stronger when it gets closer to the beacon and can vector the searchers in to the lost person.”
Carlson says Lockheed Martin has three main payloads for Indago: a Duo Plus electro-optical daytime sensor and an infrared thermal sensor that can be switched on the fly; an Ion 30X high resolution daytime-only camera that can read a license plate from 1,000 feet high; and the Noctis high-resolution thermal infrared imager that can display in white-hot, black-hot, or the Ironbow display from FLIR, an orange/purple color scheme. Carlson says that the Indago 2 has a data line range of two to three kilometers, while Indago 3 has a data link range of 10 to 12 kilometers.
Matthew Stinson, sales manager for Ewatt Inc., says that situational awareness and thermal imaging are the two main elements that fire departments are seeking in a drone. He says that Ewatt manufactures all its own aircraft and payloads, with most of its drones carrying a five-kilogram payload or better. Stinson says Ewatt makes the EWZ-S8 coaxial multirotor UAV “in a modular design that makes setup and breakdown very quick and painless. It can use a number of different payloads, ranging from high-powered zoom cameras to search lights, while still keeping a 30-minute flight time.”
Other Ewatt drones include the EWZ-D6, the company’s bestselling product, a long-endurance hexacopter (six rotors) with an endurance of 65 minutes and a payload capacity of five kilograms, and the EWZ-Z110 gas-powered variable pitch quadcopter.
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and 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.