Despite some initial operational challenges, the introduction of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) into the fire service is spreading, with technology becoming more accessible and affordable.
Some consider RPAS to be difficult to fly or that the regulations do not allow them to be used easily. This article examines the facts behind these preconceived ideas and discusses current and future practical applications.
Applications within a fire fighting environment
Unmanned aircraft are used to provide situational awareness that can help ensure the safety of fire fighters, minimise risks, identify casualties and establish surrounding hazards. This aerial perspective aids the decision making process and can give incident commanders the confidence to make sound plans based on real-time imagery. Ultimately, and this may seem a bit of a cliché, this could make the difference between life and death. Due to the limited use of RPAS by fire services, hard evidence of this in “real-life” emergencies is difficult to find. However, the experience gained from the use of a small RPAS during a simulated mass casualty event in Gloucestershire in the UK provides some measure of what can be achieved.
More than 400 emergency responders from across the UK took part in Exercise Selfridge, an annual Local Resilience Forum Exercise held in Gloucestershire. The simulation tested the County’s multi-agency response to a “survivable air crash” between a Lynx helicopter and a Hercules aircraft. The chosen location for the exercise, Cotswold Water Park, provided difficult terrain to organise and direct a coordinated search. Large lakes, surrounded by woodland and grassland, covering an area of 270 hectares (670 acres) meant that the race to hit the “golden hour” for any survivors would be a real challenge.
Resource Group’s Unmanned Aviation Services division, in support of Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service, deployed a Huginn X1 (a small quad rotor RPAS weighing 1.5Kg) to identify simulated casualties within minutes. The imagery provided was used by the Bronze Commander to immediately direct response teams to the scene, rather than spend time conducting manpower intensive foot searches. In this simulated event these casualties received life-saving treatment within the target time.
As the incident progressed the live video feed was down linked and made available to the Silver Command via a remote link, which was in turn made available to the search and rescue coordination cell and the Gold Command situated several miles away. The system provided a unique view of the crash site and was of great assistance to generating the common operational picture, which enabled a swift coordinated response.
Difficult to Operate?
Technology on these platforms has changed significantly over the years and is constantly being updated. Improvements in battery life, camera functions, image quality and flying capabilities have allowed operators to gather imagery in a host of conditions including heat and poor visibility.
The most modern RPAS have a high degree of automation and are essentially remote “fly by wire” rather than remote control. The operator simply taps a point on a digital map display and the aircraft moves there, directed by the onboard GPS and sensors. Once in position the camera is manipulated by tapping the video feed to aim it at the desired point. This means that the training burden is low as skills can be learned very quickly and certainly within 2-3 days. As the interfaces are intuitive the skill fade is very low, so this eliminates the need for lengthy retraining if an operator does not fly for a while.
The regulations regarding the use of RPAS differ widely around the world; our experience is of the UK regulation. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) grants a ‘permissions to operate’ to RPAS operators on a case by case basis. To do so they must satisfy themselves that the organisation applying for permission will operate safely in relation to other air users and also to those on the ground. The standard rules mean that it would not be usual for an RPAS to be operated in an urban area; however Fire Services operate in unusual circumstances. Safety to other air users is covered by adhering to the standard below 400ft rule imposed for all RPAS flights and by flying over a cordoned area mitigates the risk to those on the ground. The CAA understands this and has granted ‘permissions to operate’ to UK fire services in these circumstances.
The latest UK fire service to start using RPAS is Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS), which we have provided with a Huginn X1 to use as part of a wider European trial. The other cities involved are Copenhagen and Geneva which will start the trial over the coming months. The operator from Manchester has qualified to fly the Huginn by completing an approved type course and then passing the Remote Pilot Qualification-small (RPQ-s) – a total of 7 days training.
The initial response from GMFRS is positive.
Paul Argyle, Director of Emergency Response at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS), said: “GMFRS is carrying out a three-month trial of an air imagery unit, which could help crews tackle fires more effectively.
“The unit can capture and record high-definition and infra-red images and footage from the air to assist firefighters and officers dealing with a range of incidents where an aerial view would benefit them – such as moorland fires and incidents at large commercial sites.
“A GMFRS officer has been fully trained to work the unit during daylight hours initially, seven days a week from April 14, 2014.
“Not only will the unit provide support during incidents, but it can also be used in training exercises and will help us to build up a library of images and footage that can be used for training purposes, essentially improving firefighter and public safety.”
The use of RPAS within the firefighting industry is still in its early stages but with initiatives like the one above, fire services can begin to understand and assess the benefits of such technology to supporting a safer, more coordinated emergency response. We will be reporting in the December issue how these trials have progressed and we hope to deliver some case studies of how the technology has assisted in the day to day firefighting operations.
For more information, go to www.resourcegroup.co.uk/uas