Some fire departments consider the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carried on fire apparatus as an answer to a number of fireground problems.
They see incident commanders using them to recon a fire scene, identify hot spots in an active fire structure, serve in search and rescue situations, and be a commander’s eyes at a distance for a hazmat situation.
The Millstone Valley (NJ) Fire Department operates a fleet of four UAVs and has had them distributed on a number of different vehicles before building a special unit to house them and their displays and control units. Stephen Stashek, Millstone Valley’s captain and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) program coordinator, says the department has all DJI drones: a Matrice 210 v1, a Matrice 210 v2, a Mavic Enterprise, a Mavic Enterprise Dual with video and infrared (IR) cameras, and a Phantom 4. “Originally, we carried them on engines, but now the chiefs carry the Mavics in their command cars, while the other UAVs were carried on a Pierce air/light/rehab truck that has a walk-in body,” Stashek says. “But because that truck serves several functions, whenever it was requested for UAS work, it put it out of service for other uses. So, we took a 14-foot enclosed trailer and rebuilt it with walls and counters inside where we mounted monitors to get video and IR feeds from the pilot outside. The Matrice 210 units and the Phantom 4 are carried in assembled condition in the trailer, so it’s a simple matter of grabbing a charged battery and clipping it in to the UAS, and we’re ready to fly.” Millstone Valley had been pulling the UAS trailer with either a Suburban or a Chevy Tahoe but recently got a Ford F-450 with a utility body to take on that task. https://cdn.jwplayer.com/players/Su4aqEV4-tnSrKeUa.html
1 West Metro (CO) Fire Rescue carries its two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on a slide-out tray in the bed of a Ford F-150 pickup truck to be able to deploy them quickly. (Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of West Metro Fire Rescue.)
2 One of West Metro’s UAVs gave this imagery to the incident commander during a recent structure fire.
3 A fire department operates a DJI Technology UAV at a training exercise. (Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of DJI Technology, Inc.)
4 A DJI UAV is used in this instance to determine the roof integrity of this fire structure.
West Metro (CO) Fire Rescue started out carrying its two UAVs in Pelican cases in the back of a battalion chief’s vehicle, a Ford SUV. “We are flying a DJI Mavic Enterprise and a Matrice 300 with the H20T dual high-resolution infrared and real video with a 200× zoom and a laser rangefinder,” says Clint Fey, West Metro’s division chief of special operations. “We found that it was difficult to share the imagery from the UAVs with others because of the small screen on the remote control operating unit, so we installed a 43-inch television in the back of the SUV, plugged it into an inverter and a converter, and shared the imagery wirelessly.”
But because the UAVs are carried in Pelican cases, the department wanted a transport solution that would get them into the air more quickly. “We bought a new Ford F-150 and fitted the pickup bed with a slide-out tray,” Fey says. “The drones are mounted and clipped into the slide-out, and there’s a 50-inch television on the back of the tray to display the imagery from the drone. We only have to open the topper and the tailgate, and the unit becomes a command post.”
The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) recently created a new unit, FDNY Robotics, which oversees all of the department’s robotics. Michael Leo, the unit’s captain, says a variety of FDNY’s UAVs, both tethered and untethered systems, are carried in the Command Tactical Unit (CTU-1), currently a GMC quad cab pickup truck with a cap and slide-out tray on the back. “The CTU-1 is staffed 24/7 with three firefighters,” Leo notes, “an officer, pilot/operator, and visual observer.”
FDNY operates 14 drones, Fey points out, including smaller DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual units, Autel Robotics EVO2 units, as well as larger DJI Matrice 210 RTK and Phantom 4 RTK UAVs and three Hoverfly LiveSky™ tethered drones. “The CCU-1 flies both tethered and untethered systems and carries two of the smaller drones with dual video and infrared cameras and zoom capabilities and a larger drone that has excellent thermal and zoom capabilities,” Leo says. “We decided on a single unit to carry the UAVs because our operators have to work in difficult conditions such as Class B airspace, denied GPS areas, around lots of high buildings with electromagnetic issues, congested areas, and unpredictable winds.”
Chris Carnahan, dispatch supervisor for South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue, says South Metro flies nine UAVs: four DJI Mavic Minis, four Mavic Enterprise Duals, and one Matrice 210. “UAVs are deployed by an incident dispatch team from the communications center in conjunction with two safety officers,” Carnahan points out. “The incident dispatch team is on the run card for structures, wildland urban interface, and hazardous materials calls, and we also dispatch for six other combination agencies.”
Carnahan says the Matrice 210 UAV is carried on a Dodge RAM 5500 with a rescue box and satellite for Internet service, one of the Mavic Enterprise Dual units is on a Chevy Tahoe SUV, and each of the safety officers carries a Mavic Enterprise Dual in their Ford F-150 pickup trucks. “We’ve found that the majority of the work of an initial attack drone on a fire scene can be done with the Mavic Enterprise Dual because it’s the quickest to get in the air,” Carnahan notes. “The Mavic Minis are used on the interior of structures most of the time. On one hazmat call, we were able to fly a drone in and read a placard for the hazmat coordinator instead of sending a human in, and we’ve used our drones on wildland fires to determine hot spots and fire point of origin.”
UAV TRANSPORT AND LAUNCH
Wayne Baker, director of public safety integration for DJI Technology Inc., says DJI’s UAVs have been placed on a variety of fire vehicles. “Most often we are seeing them on command vehicles, in rescues, or in battalion chiefs’ vehicles,” Baker notes. “We also are seeing a push by chiefs to integrate them onto engines. Our Mavic Enterprise can go into a small Pelican case and be stored in an engine’s cab or a compartment. And, some departments are talking about storing a drone in the cab roof where they could deploy it quickly to allow it to start sending images and data.”
5 A firefighter uses a compact controller to fly a Parrot Thermal UAV. (Photos 5 and 6 courtesy of Parrot.)
6 A Parrot USA drone on station over a fire scene.
7 The Fire Department of New York carries both tethered and untethered UAVs in a Command Tactical Unit (CTU-1), a GMC quad cab pickup truck with a cap and slide-out tray on the back. (Photo 7 courtesy of Fire Department of New York.)
Baker adds that DJI recently introduced a new UAV, the Matrice 300 with a new H22 camera system. “It has a wide-angle camera of 20-megapixel imagery, a zoom camera, a thermal imaging camera, and a laser rangefinder, Baker says.
Pierce Manufacturing Inc. has a partnership with Fotokite that incorporates a Fotokite system tethered to and integrated with a fire apparatus, according to Sam Lowe, Pierce’s manager of business development for emerging technologies. “Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) reauthorization language in 2018, a system like this is not classified as a drone so you don’t need an FAA Part 107 license to operate it,” Lowe points out. “We offer three versions, all of which use the same base station and kite, which is made of a carbon fiber chassis, has six motors, and has backup batteries in case the tether is severed or the truck’s power is cut so the kite can safely land. The system operates on 120-volt or 12-volt power, and the kite has a dual color video and infrared camera, while the tether allows for dual simutaneous video streams.”
The first version is housed in a Pelican case that’s designed to fit in any standard compartment on a fire apparatus or in a battalion chief’s vehicle. “It runs on 120-volt power and takes about two minutes to deploy,” Lowe says. The slide-out tray version for new apparatus is connected to a vehicle’s power and carries the kite mounted on the tray. “You open the compartment, slide the tray out, hit deploy on the tablet, and the unit deploys,” Lowe says. The third version is a rooftop system, a self-enclosed clamshell that opens when commanded to deploy and automatically flies the tethered kite. “These systems can fly in inclement weather, in high and low temperatures, and in 35-mile-per-hour sustained winds,” Lowe observes, “and if it is not safe to fly, the system will land itself.”
Robert Topping, chief executive officer of Hoverfly Technologies Inc., notes that his company’s LiveSky Sentry tethered powered drone gives fire departments the benefits of persistance in terms of hours or days instead of 20 to 30 minutes of flight time. “Also, no special skills are needed to operate the Sentry, and all the command and control information goes up and down the tether, so there are no radio signals that could be jammed, hacked, or interfered with,” he says. “We can put a skybox on top of a fire apparatus so the LiveSky Sentry can be flown from inside the crew cab. It can produce four streams of video simultaneously, in high- and lower-resolution definition, and also two streams of thermal imaging.”
Mike Mocerino, robotics business development manager for W.S. Darley & Company, says Darley has worked with DJI and also Autel Robotics in developing UAVs that can be deployed off of engines and rescues. “We did a proof of concept truck with a deployable drone at FDIC International,” Mocerino says, “and have sold tether kits where the UAV can be integrated into the vehicle.”
Chris Roberts, vice president chief of marketing for Parrot, says Parrot recently introduced the ANAFI Thermal drone with a FLIR radiometric thermal sensor, a Sony Sensor for visible images, and the ability to blend thermal and RGB images into a single view. The drone has three-axis hybrid stabilization, 180-degree camera tilt ability, and a zoom function that gives 3× digital zoom in thermal view. An added feature, he says, is that the ANAFI Thermal can be launched from a moving vehicle.
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.