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Drones in Firefighting

Fire services across the world are constantly innovating and the recent adoption of drones is no exception.

Today, drones are a routine part of many municipal fire departments as firefighters increasingly take advantage of the unique benefits the right drone can offer at a fire scene.

Why are drones important and how do they matter in firefighting? Read below for some smoke-tinged insights.

Flown in the grizzled hands of FAA Part 107 certificated firefighters, drones are highly capable tools and many firefighters have come to rely on the information they provide during and after a major fire incident.

Bard College’s now-defunct Drone Center last reported in 2020 that nearly 1,600 public safety agencies operate at least one drone. As the costs go down and technology improves, drone adoption in fire safety is quickly becoming a standard firefighting tool.

Drones, At Your Service

An early-adopter firefighter flying the original DJI Phantom in 2013 to get a good aerial look at a fire scene would be astounded at how drones are used today. The main uses of drones in firefighting today are:

  • Fire scene monitoring and assessment
  • Search and rescue
  • Post-fire analysis and scene documentation

The integration of lightweight and increasingly capable radiometric thermal sensors onto drones from companies like FLIR Systems, DJI, Parrot, among others, has provided a  revolutionary amount of information to a fire scene commander. And information is key when lives are at stake.

Whether planning the ingress route for a frontal assault on a structure fire or searching for people inside, thermal imagery can “see” through the smoke to locate individuals and hot spots, while keeping firefighters safe.

What used to be received as verbal reports, of say, a wall collapsing over the radio can now be visualized on a high-definition live feed, beamed wherever it’s needed. Locating missing people, fugitives, and even lost pets are also public safety functions that have seen great returns with thermal drone imagery.

Wildfire management

Firefighters have also found drones have great utility in wildfire management. The USDA Forest Service is using drones to prescribe fires in controlled burn zones.

This effort to mitigate large wildfires is part of the broader National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy plan set forth by multiple government agencies including the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior.

Indeed, while a drone launching 400 chemically explosive paintballs injected with glycol into the forest might seem like the dreams (or nightmares) of the future, it is yet another example of the extraordinary versatility of drones. 

Even a simple drone with a basic camera can spot a wildfire in the distance and provide timely information.

Today, more sophisticated drones are used to provide thermal hotspot information, map large fire areas and keep firefighting crews safe in the field.

Even after a forest fire, drones can help repopulate a burned area by reseeding large areas of a burn zone from the sky. With nearly 25,000 wildfires year-to-date, 2022 promises to keep drones and their operators very busy. 

Post-fire scene analysis

Post-fire-scene analysis has also embraced the use of drones. Drone imagery can quickly document a post-fire scene, allowing forensic teams to begin a coordinated removal of debris for analysis or looking for a point of origin as part of a criminal investigation.

“Using drones after an explosion helps us get an idea of how far debris flew from the epicenter.” says Fire Scene Investigator, Doug Rayburn, of Rayburn Fire Scene Investigation in Orland Park, IL.

“Drones can help us determine how structurally sound a building is. Walls might be leaning and it can be hard to tell with the naked eye from the ground.” 

As Rayburn FSI and other members of the public safety community have embraced drone technology, drone manufacturers have taken notice and moved to supply specialized products to fill this demand.

The Market Strikes Back

As the available market for public-safety-focused drones continues to grow, so do the options available to fire departments. While some thermal-equipped drones can be purchased for a few thousand dollars, major players like DJI and Skydio are jumping into public safety drones with all four propellers. 

Recent introductions like the DJI Matrice 30 series, Brinc’s Lemur S, and Skydio X2 are tailor-made for use in the public safety sector.

Working in conjunction with firefighters and other public safety professionals, drone manufacturers are introducing products with quick start-up functions, high reliability, state-of-the-art thermal sensors, longer flight durations, and, importantly, waterproofing for all-weather and all-condition applications. 

Swappable payload systems continue to iterate and mature. Fire safety crews, today, could potentially deploy a large spotlight instead of a thermal camera on a drone. Or swap to a toxic gas sniffer, a LiDAR sensor, or even a loudspeaker.

Payloads are emerging for AI-driven casualty detection systems. Or, hey, maybe you want to just throw the drone through the window and let it do the talking.

Since breaking out of its infancy after the FAA opened up commercial drone operations under Part 107 in 2016, the enterprise drone market continues to accelerate its offerings of firefighting companions.

Man vs. Machine

The future of drones in firefighting is not adversarial but fantastically cooperative. Drone integration into existing firefighting tactics is a force multiplier for human decision-making. Having the right drone on-site, in the hands of a capable drone pilot, can provide critical information to the on-scene commander when making what, quite literally, can be life or death decisions.

One of the leaders in utilizing drones in firefighting is the New York City Fire Department’s FDNY Robotics Team. No stranger to adopting new tech, such as the two $75k Boston Dynamics “Spot” robots, the FDNY has taken a comprehensive approach to using drones at complex fire scenes (not to mention complex NYC Class B airspace and avigation laws).

This year’s unmanned systems annual Xpontential trade show in Orlando, FL powered by AUVSI, co-awarded the 1st place prize to FDNY Robotics for having “made a significant impact using uncrewed systems to serve in humanitarian or public safety efforts.” 

As drone technology, like thermal imagery, continues to trickle down the market, it’s likely we will continue to see municipal and rural fire departments, often absent the large budget of the FDNY, invest taxpayer money into in-house drone programs.

Non-profit entities like Drone Responders, consisting of current and former public safety professionals, offer training and onboarding services for start-up drone programs.

As the small but effective ecosystem of drone enablement professionals and programs continues to expand, firefighters who were previously drone-curious have resources to pursue in their efforts to further integrate new tech into existing tactics. 

Our High-Pitched Buzzing Sound Future

What are some outside factors that could keep drones grounded in fire departments? The usual suspects: money, politics, and legal.

In local firehouses, city councils, state capitals, and Washington D.C., debates continue over public safety budgets (new thermal-equipped drones can cost upwards of $50k), FAA regulations (public safety professionals are not exempt from complying with airspace regulations), and municipal ordinances related to privacy and how the public safety community uses information from drones.

The state of Florida recently kinked the hoses of many fire departments when it invalidated powerhouse drone maker DJI from the approved drone manufacturers list, along with an estimated $5.5M in public funds spent on DJI products flying in the hands of Florida’s public safety officials.

While much of this is outside the control of the average firefighter, drones have already proven themselves as highly valuable firefighting tools as well as political ones.

So, what’s next for drones in firefighting? The answer lies with firefighters and the future technology they choose to adopt. In-helmet thermal sensors, fireproof-smart clothing, and loads of other future tech goodies could make their way into this profession.

As drone capabilities continue to provide richer information at a lower risk, firefighters will continue to innovate alongside their robotic eyes in the sky. 

Rugged operations in GPS-denied environments (a massive structure fire for example) will require drones to operate largely on their own. SLAM computing technology could allow future firefighting drones to move faster and safer without any human input.

Cloud computing will continue to evolve while providing a seamless fusion of data from multiple on-scene resources, including aerial drones. It’s possible we may see more use of tethered drone systems to do the work of actually extinguishing a fire.

In 2017, a thermal-sensing drone helped immensely by providing critical information at London’s Grenfell Tower but wasn’t capable of extinguishing the fire.

Although the unforgiving physics of a drone lifting water to great heights remains challenging, other extinguishing agents, such as powders and foams, may one day make it possible to snuff out a tower fire as quickly as a tethered drone can be deployed.

While we can’t rely on drones to replace the primary element of a firefighter’s job in killing a fire, we can rely on drones to be an exquisitely enhanced extension of our senses.

Aerial Ignition Academy trains drone pilots
National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy
Latest Updates on New Mexico Fires – The New York Times