5 drone technologies for firefighting

The commercialization of unmanned aerial aircrafts is leading to innovative, off-the-shelf tools for incident commanders

Drones armed with cameras and sensor payloads have been used by military and border control agencies for decades to improve situational awareness. Commercialization now has brought more UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to market — making the technology more accessible to fire, EMS and emergency departments.

These eyes-in-the-sky can be used across public-safety services, from transmitting birds-eye video of a forest fire to incident commanders to mapping out hard-hit areas after a natural disaster. Here are five drone technologies worth watching for fire and emergency response operations.

1. ELIMCO's E300 with FÉNIX
The ELIMOC E300 is a UAV with a large payload capacity and low-noise electrical propulsion being used by INFOCA, the Andalusian authority for the management of wildfires in Spain, to track wildfires at night.

The E300 can be launched remotely and operated for 1.5 hours with a radio control from up to 27 miles away. However, during night flights, the E-300 can loiter over a fire for around 3 hours and get as far as 62 miles from the launching point.

It is important to improve night wildland firefighting using technology, as a lull in firefighting efforts during the night lets wildfires expand. The night UAV with specific payloads can fly directly above the wildfire area to record video of the fire line, including thermal images that are then geo-tagged and relayed in real time to mobile command centers using the company's planning and monitoring system for forest fire fighting (FÉNIX). FÉNIX lets operators locate and address spots in a forest fire in real time using a mapping application.

2. L3 Communication's Viking 400-S
The Viking 400-S Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is integrated with Autonomous Take-Off and Landing (ATOL) technology supplied by L-3 Unmanned Systems' flightTEK system. The UAS operates for up to 12 hours and can be equipped with up to 100 pounds of payload technologies, including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detectors for hazmat emergencies.

The CBRN payload would let a first responder stay up to 70 miles line-of-sight away from a hazmat incident and, instead, send a drone to collect CBRN information from the scene and transmit it wirelessly back to incident command. UAS units carrying high-resolution cameras can capture bird's-eye images of a manmade or natural disaster, which can help incident commanders identify hard-hit areas and prioritize resources.

Images captures are transmitted wirelessly back to into a GIS software suite for mapping an affected area and later reporting needs.

3. Information Processing Systems' MCV
Information Processing Systems (IPS) Mobile Command Vehicles and incident command mobile carts are deployable, customized, public-safety vehicles that integrate aerial, ground and subsurface remotely controlled robotic platforms. MCVs basically are custom mobile ground control station for UAVs and other public-safety robotics.

They are modified Ford trucks that can house security cameras, sensors, radar and communication infrastructure. The truck can be outfitted with trailers to carry drones, which then can be commanded from within the center.

Having a mobile command center for drone deployment allows wildland firefighters working in remote areas to take their entire communication system with them to launch a UAV or drones over a wildfire and map out affected areas.

In urban areas, an aerial video provides actionable information so commanders can make informed decisions at the response site — whether at a bombing or a hurricane. Chiefs running structural fires could send the truck to four-alarm fires where UAVs conduct a 360-degree investigation of the fire scene before firefighters enter buildings.

4. Sensefly's eBee
Switzerland-based Sensefly's eBee drones are tiny compared to other drones; they have a 37.8-inch wingspan and weigh 1.5 pounds. The foam airframe eBee drones are equipped with a rear-mounted propeller and feature a 16-megapixel camera to shoot aerial imagery at down to 3cm/pixel resolution.

The drone as a flight time of up to 45 minutes, which is long enough to cover as far as 10 miles in a single flight. In addition, users can pre-program 3D flight plans using Google maps prior to deployment, with up to 10 drones controlled from a single base station. Then, using its Postflight Terra 3D-EB mapping software, it can create maps and elevation models with a precision of 5 centimeters and process aerial imagery into 3D models.

eBees could be used as a lightweight, deployable drone added to wildland firefighters backpacks for situational awareness. In the future, 3D models can be displayed on firefighters' ruggedized smartphones, which is expected in the next revision of NFPA 1802, the Standard on Two-Way, Portable (Hand-Held) Land Mobile Radios for Use by Emergency Services Personnel. The information can be transmitted to incident command and stored for later use.

5. Kaman's UAT
The Unmanned K-MAX multi-mission helicopter is an Unmanned Aerial Truck based on the K-MAX heavy-lift aerial truck helicopter. The unit has 6,000 pounds of payload capacity and can move gear and personnel in and out of an area without endangering additional personnel.

Imagine providing supplies to firefighters, EMS and emergency responders in the field at a disaster with precision aerial delivery in high-wind, hot conditions without further risk to life or when personnel resources are stretched too thin. This ranges from delivering food, water, fuel, blood or even radio communications missions, such as sending the UAT to place data relay stations or communication equipment to a remote mountaintop.

With continued commercialization, drones carrying video payloads will arm first responders and incident commanders with myriad ways to capture data at a fireground, from CBRN dangers to wildfire spread, in order to better safeguard their community and emergency responders on the ground. 

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