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A firefighter's guide to drone flight: 7 elements of a copter drone

With the right commitment and training, drones in the fire service will be just another tool to protect life and property


With public safety usage and applications exploding, fire department drones are poised to be the next technology to redefine emergency response. FireRescue1’s special coverage series – Emergency response in the drone age – takes an in-depth look at considerations for fire departments looking to implement a UAS program.

It is no surprise that drones are gaining wide acceptance in the fire service. While not new to construction work, traffic departments or law enforcement, fire departments around the country are increasing their participation in the advancement of strategic observation. Fire service agencies around the world will spend over 800 million dollars on drones in the coming months, in activities such as:

  • Monitoring a fire scene.
  • Surveying large areas for victims.
  • Lighting an incident.
  • Supplying equipment
  • Assessing a disaster.
Eventually, drones will be just another device in the firehouse, another tool to protect life and property. (Photo/Pixabay)
Eventually, drones will be just another device in the firehouse, another tool to protect life and property. (Photo/Pixabay)

Recently, fire department drones have checked miles of fire line in California, surveyed an accident scene in Kansas City and secured a visual on the C side of a Philadelphia brownstone. On Mar. 6, 2017, the FDNY used a tethered drone over a four-alarm fire in the Bronx.

Today, fire departments and EMS services in Arizona are being recognized for their professional approach to purchasing and training on what is universally recognized as advanced technology.

With all of this success, it is hard to believe there is a downside or at least a word of caution when it comes to the use of drones.

A word of caution when implementing drones

Hobby shop drones piloted by untrained personnel have been known to injure personnel and destroy property, the opposite of our mission as firefighters. In spite of auto gyros and synchronized propellers, drones can crash or their power supplies can ignite when improperly charged or over-stressed. On Sept. 21, 2017, a recreational drone pilot struck his device into a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter near Staten Island, New York.

With too many G forces, drones can break apart. The sophisticated electronics that are supposed to make them balance and hover can suddenly quit working over a crowd. Playing video games or having a friend who flies radio controlled airplanes is not enough to expertly pilot these UAS.

For any fire department incident, appreciating exactly how a drone flies and the myriad of operational skills utilized during its deployment should convince you to contact a reputable dealer specializing in first response requirements and the federal regulations needed to operate a drone safely and effectively.

Obtain the proper training, and use this guide to understand the seven elements of a copter type drone:

1. Structure

A copter type drone consists of a platform and arms. The arms contain motors and propellers connected to the platform, which holds a speed control, battery and signal receiver system. The platform is also the location for a payload. A payload can be a camera, thermal imaging device or specialized equipment. As seen in Australia recently, a payload can be a lifesaving device released down to victims of a riptide.

2. Force

Motors and props on the ends of drone arms can arranged in configurations of four, six or eight, depending on the payload requirements. The power comes from three phase motors that require no brushes to generate the necessary electrical current and propellers that are made of plastic, carbon fiber and Kevlar. The motor and prop assemblies are connected to, and balanced by, a multi-system speed control designed to accelerate or deaccelerate as controlled by the pilot.

3. Direction

Greater thrust pulls the drone upward, while decreasing the collective speed of the motors lowers the drone accordingly. Changing the angle of the propellers by increasing the speed of individual motors can change the drone’s direction. Advanced power arrangements and racing drones actually change the pitch and angle of the prop or motor mount to move in different directions.

4. Electronic control

The speed control is connected to the receiver, as are any payload devices that require activating small motors, called servos. Gimbels on a camera for movement and all controls to accurately generate an image, as well as release devices on equipment to be delivered, require these servo mechanisms or their direct electronic impulses. It is recommended this much work be controlled by a pilot and an assistant.

Video signals, exact locations and a defined flying grid can be programmed into an arrangement of sophisticated receivers, each with its own power supply and activation sequence. These signals can be monitored by video screens connected to a transmitter or to a computer, depending on the sophistication of the drone system utilized.

5. Transmitter

To fly a drone, a transmitter must be bound to its receiver, that is, there needs to be a signal between the transmitter in the hands of a pilot and a drone in flight. Any interference, improper binding or changes in transmitter settings can compromise a safe and successful flight.

A transmitter normally starts with two sticks or control gimbals. A normal setup consists of the right stick controlling direction and the left stick controlling altitude via motor speed. While it may sound simple, blending the two for effective flight requires training and practice.

Add to this activity trim tabs, angle settings, exterior device activation and control, as well as event recording and systems monitoring, and you have a complete and complicated flight pattern. Some drones are flown by computer alone.

6. Battery power

Power for a drone comes from lithium-ion batteries. While battery technology is developing new sources of energy, the current standard for drone operation is the lithium-ion battery as its power-to-weight ratio is currently unmatched. While it may look solid, a lithium-ion battery is actually a connected series of jelly-like packets; the more packets, the more voltage and amperes – the more power, like a dynamite-level explosive in an unopened fruit punch pouch.

Battery configurations can generate over 500 watts of power per motor yet are portable enough to be functional for a drone. Lithium-ion has a power curve of continuing high efficiency until a cell or cells reach a low power threshold of approximately three volts per cell, resulting in an accelerated loss of power. Lithium-ion batteries must be balanced, charged and discharged according to instructions as misuse or damage can result in a 1,000 degree fire.

7. Damage

In addition to battery fires, problems arise when propellers are damaged or motors are compromised due to poor wiring or continued use at high RPM’s. Drone motors rotate in the tens of thousands of RPM’s and a damaged prop can vibrate enough to shake electronics loose, causing a loss of control. A propeller flying off a drone motor can penetrate through drywall. A bad motor alone can cause a disruption in balanced flight or a continued shaking of the drone platform. Reliability of information relayed to the transmitter is compromised.

Commitment to launching a fire service drone program

If a firefighter has an appreciation of aerodynamics and a willingness to start slow out of respect for the equipment, you have a pilot. If a fire department sees substantial benefit in an effective response device, you have funding.

Expect to pay about $5,000 for a mid-level drone system. This includes orientation, as well as manufacturer’s and dealer training. Have at least two firefighters with the time and inclination for such a project. Most drone companies are run by retired law enforcement, fire service and EMS personnel. This is a great advantage and dollar value when it comes to clear communications and getting the job done right.

Currently, the rules and regulations that effect drone operation are new and – in the opinion of many – obscure at best. A district or municipal fire department must, with all good intentions, register their drones as a device to advance their mission of protecting life and property. Many of today’s professional drone suppliers can assist with the documentation necessary for a safe and legal drone operation.

The registration timeline includes:

  • Create a concept of operation.
  • Get buy in and funding for a specific task.
  • Research the best bang for the buck.
  • Finalize the three elements for registration submission:
    • Concept of operation (What are you going to do with it?).
    • Description of the drone (What is it/what was purchased).
    • Agency requesting a certificate of authorization (Fire Department/County) Emergency/Law Enforcement/DERA).
  • Begin the registration process:
    • Title 49 USC 40102 defines fire departments as a governmental function. Departments apply for a Public Aircraft Operation Certificate of Authorization (PAO COA). Classify it as a “jurisdictional certificate” and department personnel can fly almost immediately.
    • The FAA requires: Form 8130-6 Application for Airworthiness Certificate.
    • The FAA has revised: 14 CFR Part 107, giving clearer insight into drone regulations.
  • Training for pilots and administrators.

Drone standards and regulations

In the future, the knowledge and skill requirements for drone operation and safety will be outlined in NFPA 1001, Standards for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. Like technical rescue, hazmat and RIT team trainings, additional standards will be written that will designate the level of training and specialization needed to maintain a regulated drone operation.

Firefighters will be able to contribute at all operational levels when firefighting drones comply with accepted safety standards and governmental regulations, and are accurately delineated for task assignments such as:

  • Search and rescue.
  • Traffic collisions.
  • Active shooter perimeter
  • Fire and scene analysis.

Eventually, drones will be just another device in the firehouse, another tool to protect life and property.

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