They come flying straight out of science fiction.
Those small airborne entities, hovering, dodging and darting.
They dot the news – invading air space, invading privacy and taking photographs.
Obviously, in the wrong hands, they can be a nuisance.In the right hands, however, they can save lives and property.
Drones have been in use for decades in military applications – from unmanned balloons armed with bombs to a camera fitted to a kite during the Spanish-American war.
Drones have been used for targets, flying bombs, surveillance, remote weapons and policing functions. As costs have decreased for these lightweight Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs), they have risen in popularity with model enthusiasts and camera buffs.
So how does this translate for firefighters and firefighting applications? Even though the popularity has grown, is the technology stable enough for use daily?
Truly there is a difference between shooting a sneak peek at the neighbor’s swimming pool and doing reconnaissance on fire lines and finding the hot spots, or locating a missing person in a remote area.
Fire departments can use a drone in many ways, such as in operations in extreme weather conditions, highway incidents (where they can arrive first to the scene), searching for missing persons, wildland fires, water rescues, and searches in remote locations. They can go places, like heavily involved areas, where there may be a reluctance to enter.
Their video footage may also be used for documentation, which can be utilized for training or evidence collection.
When considering obtaining a drone, the following variables will come into play:
Location/Terrain: The location and terrain that you typically work in must be considered. For example, rural areas may need different operating ranges than urban areas. Drones are exceptionally useful if there are specific areas that you are called to where accessibility is limited and requiring a visual on the situation beforehand can help you bring the right tools to the job. One way they are becoming even more commonly used is to verify which side of a bridge an accident is on, the severity of the crash and traffic surrounding the area.
Usage: How do you plan to use the drone? Drones are configured based on the intended type of usage. A surveillance drone for fire lines is going to be set slightly differently than one with a planned use of only search and rescue. If you are going to purchase more than a couple, you will need some sort of integrated system to review all the information.
Frequency: How often do you plan to use the drone? The frequency of use will impact battery requirements, the number of drones you need to obtain, the number of staff you need to train.
Staff/Training: How many people on staff do you plan on training for drone usage? Are they full time or part time?
Budget: What type of budget do you have in place for acquisitions of equipment? High-quality drones designed for firefighting and search and rescue missions typically start at $20,000 and can go up from there.
Storage Requirements: Where you will store the drones can have an impact on your responsiveness to situations. Off-site storage may be more accessible, but you will need to consider 24-hour access and storage costs as factors in your plan.
Legal Impact: You will need to work with local, state and federal government to understand the laws affecting drone usage and come up with Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) for operability standards. Coordination with the FAA is required since drones do impact air space. Coming up with a joint plan for your area and the FAA is a proactive approach which will reduce headaches in the future.
The acquisition and use of drones in the fire department can be incredibly complex – however, the benefits can far exceed the challenges to start to use them in field operations.
The best way to proceed is to develop an acquisition plan, do the research, set the budget, and speak to other fire departments that are using them already.
The tactical benefits of this technology can be amazing, but you need to do the groundwork before you fly in.
Important Terms to Know:
Payload – The amount of additional weight a drone can lift in addition to its weight and batteries. If you attach a camera and gimbal to your drone, the combined weight is the payload.
Grade –Toy-Grade, Hobby-Grade, and Professional-Grade are the three primary grades referring to the quality of the drone.
Operating Hours – How long the battery is determined to last based on drone weight. Operating hours can and will be impacted by payload and wind conditions.
Operating Range – How far from the controller the drone can work.
Controller Type – How the drone and the operator communicate. Controllers can be specific to a drone, or “Universal” i.e. applicable for a number of drones.
Wingspan – The length of the wings.
Construction Material – The material the drone is constructed of. The material is an important component when you consider possible temperatures near a fire.
Maximum Speed – Wind strength and direction will affect the rate of travel.
Integrated Operations – Information system that allows for multiple drone inputs.
Obviously, in the wrong hands, they can be a nuisance. In the right hands, however, they can save lives and property.
Do you fly a drone? Share your experience with us in the comments.