How firefighters in the UK are pioneering the use of drones

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Drones were also used during the floods in England’s West Midlands region in summer of this year. Photo: GMFRS

The English Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) is constantly working to improve how they respond to incidents and how to make sure that their personnel can be as safe as possible while responding.

The GMFRS decided to invest in around the clock drone capacity in 2015 after a trial during which the drone pilot was able to detect that several firefighters were working on an unsupported wall during an incident, which could have collapsed any moment. The pilot then immediately informed the team who were able to make sure that they were safe. After that, the firefighters were convinced, but the challenge was to get sufficient human resources to ensure that drone flights were available 24/7. Eventually, these challenges were resolved and today the newly formed Aerial Imagery Reconnaissance (AIR) Unit responds almost daily to incidents ranging from fires to flooding to search and rescue.

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A fire as seen by different cameras on the drone. Photo: GMFRS
A fire as seen by different cameras on the drone. Photo: GMFRS

The drone used by the GMFRS is an Aeryon SkyRanger, which can fly up to 50 minutes, at a range of some 122 m (400 feet) above the ground. It is equipped with a dual-use camera (standard definition and an infrared camera). The imagery can be downloaded to an secure digital card or be streamed to a tablet, if the tablet is within 100 metres of the drone.

An Aeron SkyRanger
An Aeron SkyRanger

Sun, rain or wind

The GMFRS chose the SkyRanger because it can fly in up to 35 mph winds, even with 55 mph gusts and it is waterproof. As Station Manager Mark Fairclough explains, it was important that the drone would be seen as an asset by his fellow firefighters. “When [the drones] attend an incident, they have to be able to fly. If the weather conditions are poor, and they couldn’t fly just because of that, then the firefighters would lose confidence in the tool.”

Pack extra batteries

Over time, several best practices have been developed, such as packing five extra batteries, each of which allow for an extra 20 to 30 minutes of flight. There are also a number of rules that need to be observed as Fairclough explains: “You only fly around 150 metres within your visual line of sight, 400 feet above the ground. You can only go to extended visual line of sight when you have another observer/pilot there with you, so that’s another consideration.”

One of the areas where drones have been able to add value is searching for missing persons. Often such a search will require teams to cover a wide area, normally with dozens of volunteers on the ground. “A large grassy area takes 1-2 hours to search,” says Fairclough. “A drone [with infrared] can cut the time in half.” There are limits however, he adds, notably that thick forests limit visibility on the ground. Nonetheless, he says, “drones, along with the rescue dogs work together in partnership.”

A severely damaged building as seen by the drone. Photo: GMFRS
A severely damaged building as seen by the drone. Photo: GMFRS

Drones on Twitter

Sharing information with the communities remains important as well. The GMFRS actively share information when a drone is deployed to ensure communities are informed: “There’s been lots of national coverage of the negative issues pertaining to [drone] hobbyists,” says Fairclough. “The Sussex police did a number of assessments of perceptions of the use of drones and there is a slight negative effect. From the fire service perspective, we send a tweet out on Twitter when the SkyRanger is deployed.”

Drone images can help firefighters plan better before entering a building. Photo: GMFRS
Drone images can help firefighters plan better before entering a building. Photo: GMFRS

Data protection

The GMFRS has become used to having drones as part of their search and rescue toolkit. With the regular flights comes greater concern for issues such as data protection. “Within the UK, there are data protection laws that are very stringent,” says Fairclough. “Most of it’s pitched for the hobbyists and not especially for emergency services. However, for us, data is stored in a secure environment, on a secure central database. We are very aware of data protection laws.”

While the AIR Unit is unique, it appears to be inspiring other fire and rescue teams elsewhere in the UK. The use of drones has been adopted for occasional use in Kent, but as of June 2016, no fire and rescue services have adopted a 24/7 unit like the GMFRS. However, more widespread adoption by other fire and rescue forces is likely. To date some 43 fire and rescue forces have successfully completed trials using SkyRanger drones.

Over the next months, Droneblog will feature summaries of case studies that show how drones are already being used in disaster response operations worldwide. The case studies were produced under the leadership of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) and with funding from EU Humanitarian Aid. The goal of this research initiative is to identify use cases in which cases drones can improve the quality or increase the efficiency of humanitarian aid.

You can find a longer version of this case study and more information about the project on http://drones.fsd.ch/

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