Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used to be the remit of the military and sci-fi films. Recent advances in technology – and changes to aviation laws worldwide – mean they’re now available as tools for all types of business, including emergency services and fire fighting operations.
When you hear the word ‘drone’ you probably imagine one of two things: huge oversized gliders used by armies for reconnaissance, or tiny hobby drones a five year old could fly. Fire fighters wouldn’t use either of these! There are many, many types of UAV available these days – but fire services need to be very picky about the platform they choose. The right drone platform will fly in harsh conditions without difficulty, have greater reliability, carry high quality imaging equipment, have a thermal camera as standard, and perhaps most importantly will have a solid integration with other communication systems in the force.
Increased safety for fire fighters
One of the key benefits of using a drone during fire fighting operations is increased safety for both fire crew and civilians. A drone can be sent to monitor an existing blaze at very close range to identify hotspots, potential explosion points, and possible rescue pathways.
With real-time images fed back to a ground team, immediate decisions can be made with confidence. This in turn increases the speed with which fire crews can approach a blaze and rescue any person still in the vicinity.
Thermal imaging versus RGB cameras
Most drones will carry at least one camera as part of the standard payload: however one for a fire service should have both thermal and visual spectrum (RGB) imaging. Fire crews are required to perform many services, with tackling fires just one of them: having a drone only equipped with a thermal camera restricts the tasks for which it can be used.
When equipped with a thermal camera such as the DJI Zenmuse XT Thermal, high resolution images are fed back straight away to a ground team. The high sensitivity on the camera means temperature can be measured by every single pixel – and alarms even set for temperatures which are too high or below a certain temperature.
A thermal camera can also be used after a fire has been put out to assess the safety of a structure post-incident. Areas which are still particularly hot (or even particularly cold) highlighted on the thermal camera also provide vital clues to investigators on the cause of the fire.
On the other hand, a visual spectrum camera is ideal for assisting other emergency services as well as the fire crew on the scene. A drone with an RGB camera can provide real-time monitoring for crowd control, and also highlight potential additional hazardous structures nearby (such as gas tanks on a rooftop) which may otherwise be missed by usual assessment tactics.
Getting to, and coordinating, a large incident is made all the more helpful with a flexible eye-in-the-sky. Vehicle routes become more obvious and easier to direct, while immediate damage assessment can be made from the air to identify possible hazards such as buildings which may collapse. A drone fitted with a high quality RGB camera can get as close to these possible hazards as physically possible (within a few feet!) to assess even tiny structural problems and help ground teams create hazard-free clear zones to operate in.
It’s not just about fires
Fire crews don’t just attend fires, so the drone in their arsenal must be suited to multiple tasks.
Search and rescue operations become instantly easier and more successful with a drone to hand. Thermal imaging cameras can pick out body heat: currently, imaging is either by hand (slow) or helicopter (canopies and indoor structures are impossible). A drone is flexible, fast, and can identify minute thermal fluctuations with ease.
Whether seeking a single person or finding hundreds in the rubble after an earthquake, drones are an essential tool for speeding up search operations without increasing harm to fire crews. The UAV can access areas not easily available to people on foot, and stops them from having to go into dangerous buildings or areas which may be structurally unsound.
Finally, we can’t forget the other form of payload carried by UAVs: sensors. When attending a possible gas explosion, for example, a fire crew can send in a drone fitted with an air analysis sensor. Data is captured and relayed immediately: if gas is present, the relevant precautions can be taken. If not, crews can act accordingly and make the incident site safe again as quickly as possible. Sensors can be fitted for all sorts, even radiation.
Accident investigation with UAVs
A post-incident report is much, much easier to create with drone footage recorded in real-time during the event. It also enables accident investigators to analyse the blaze in detail to aid the formation of a cause theory, and the surveillance aspect of drones above an incident could also assist police forces with footage at a later date.
What’s next for drones in firefighting?
With increased payloads, exponentially fast technological developments, and more trained drone pilots available than ever, drones are set to become an essential tool in every fire crew’s kit. While the type of commercial drone required is budget-busting compared to the hobbyist’s Phantom 4 or BeBop, the sheer amount of time saved – and increased safety – seriously outweighs cost implications.
Drones provide an extra safety net to fire crews – and may even one day assist in dousing hard-to-reach fires too! Sounds like science fiction – but so did mobile phones only a few decades ago…
For more information, go to www.droneflight.co.uk