Public Safety Drones

Drones that can reach tight and difficult spots bring search and rescue to new heights

A tethered drone that extinguishes fires in high, hard to reach spaces is being tested and seeking investors for commercial distribution. The drone, built by Aerone in Latvia, is fitted with a fire hose and has the ability to reach up to 984 feet. It can reach places where height and heat create a challenge and can also be used for other public safety tasks, as it can carry up to 440 pounds.

The manufacturer is also using this high-powered drone, also known as unmanned aircraft system, for cleaning and de-icing equipment. It’s one of the newest types of drones offering many advantages for fire and rescue and other public service agencies. The Federal Aviation Authority, or FAA, recently selected 10 test cities for its Unmanned Aerial System Integration Pilot Program, which will allow local government agencies and private partners to test new civic uses.

In May, the U.S. Geological Survey used a drone near the K’lauea volcano in Hawaii to direct emergency responders to a resident endangered by hot lava flow approaching his neighborhood. Last year, Wilson, North Carolina began using drones to capture video footage of accident scenes, allowing engineers, utility operations managers and public safety officers to collaborate without having to drive to the scene. The Texas Department of Public Safety employs an Aeryon SkyRanger equipped with a high technology camera for crash scene reconstruction.

Drones are also useful for planning and operations after a natural disaster or catastrophe. The Center for the Study of the Drone, at Bard College in New York, estimates that at least 910 state and local police, fire and emergency services agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones, according to a report released by the center in May. The report showed that the number of drones had increased by roughly 82 percent in the last year. Since drones are relatively new, there are still some significant safety, regulatory and legal issues to resolve. Operating standards for their use will be tweaked for many years to come.

Some of the challenges fire departments face as they begin to use drones include:

  • Safety: Your agency will need to develop operational guidelines to keep citizens safe in case the drone crashes or falls from the sky.
  • Height restrictions: The FAA typically limits its height to 400 feet unless you get special authorization.
  • Flight duration: Drone Universities recommends a larger unit with a flight time of at least 50 minutes. Larger drones can carry a higher payload with a drop system, which is critical for search and rescue.
  • Thermal sensor: This feature can detect heat coming from objects and turn that into images or videos.
  • Wind handling capacity: Larger drones can handle winds up to 35 to 40 mph and can withstand all types of weather.
  • Legal issues involving search without a warrant: While drone data can help with investigations, it can also lead to prosecutions based on false, or illegally obtained, data.

For public safety agencies, one of the biggest debates over drone use involves FAA regulations; whether to get a Certificate of Authorization (COA) or a certificate under the Part 107 rule. Both will work, but each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Some agencies obtain both certificates to cover all their bases.

Getting certified under the Part 107 rule is faster (in as little as 10 days) and allows the agency to claim damages from its insurance company. But under that rule, the drone pilot will need to take the FAA’s Aeronautical Knowledge Test. And, this rule prohibits flying drones at night, flying beyond visual line of sight, flying over people and flying above 400 feet. The drone must also weigh less than 55 pounds.

The COA certification process takes longer and is more difficult. However, it permits agencies to fly within certain regions of controlled airspace, to fly over people in the event of a life safety incident, and the agency can request other special provisions depending on its specific needs.

Does your department use a drone? Share some of your insights on drone models or federal certification that you’ve found to be helpful below.

 

1. “A Latvian Company is Developing Drones That Can Put Out Fires” 2018. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/aerones-firefighting-drones-2018-4
2. “How Drones can be used in Public Safety” 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thedroneu.com/adu-0680/
3. “Beyond the Basics” 2017. Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/uas/beyond_the_basics/
4. “Study: Drone use in public safety greatly increasing” 2018. Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/police-products/Police-Drones/articles/475939006-Study-Drone-use-in-public-safety-greatly-increasing/

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