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Firefighting drones: What’s new and what’s next?

Advancements in flight distances and speed, object identification and transport, logistics and autonomy are moving almost as fast as the industry itself

By Bear Afkhami

When I wrote my first UAS article for FireRescue1 in 2019, the use of drones within public safety was still novel. Five short years later, the adoption of drones within policing, firefighting, SAR and emergency management has skyrocketed, with the drone industry replicating itself to keep up with demand. The public safety sector is no longer asking, “How do I start a drone program?” but rather “Which of the many resources should I choose to start my program?”

While the drone public safety industry has boomed, the use of drones by police departments dominates over fire departments, with policing drones taking up nearly 75% of the sector. However, the use of drones by fire departments, and the technologies that go with them, have also continued to expand. The real-time unfiltered visual observation, thermal imaging, recording and logistics use cases have shown tremendous benefits for public safety, plus significant technological advancements.

New heights, further and for a longer period

From the first introduction of UAS, one of the most obvious benefits of drones in firefighting has been their ability to reach heights and locations a firefighter or rescuer could not reach without the use of specialized equipment, such as towers and buckets. Drones have continued to provide departments with multiple vantage points of a roof, not having to risk crews on top of structures that are potentially unstable. But this benefit has expanded beyond roofs.

In October 2023, Jacksonville (Florida) Fire and Rescue Department crews responded to a three-story parking garage collapse with more than 100 vehicles inside. Determining the number of victims trapped was essential, but deploying teams inside was not feasible. In coordination with the Sheriff’s Office, the fire department deployed a drone that was able to maneuver through the entirety of the collapse site, under rubble and inside crushed vehicles.

Flying in tight quarters is not aided by good pilots only, but also the new object detection, avoidance and self-correction technologies. Flying indoors is not just for SWAT teams searching for an active shooter; it can be used to search for victims in a structure fire. The same is true for gaining access to a structure by breaking glass, a feature available now in the market. Additionally, many drones can now go farther and stay longer with flight times of up to 55 minutes with signal ranges of over nine miles.

Measurements and signatures

One of the most beneficial and widely used accessory technologies to fire department drones has enabled the identification of objects. Thermal imaging technology can detect humans, animals, hot spots and more, allowing fire personnel to make life- and property-saving decisions.

For example, in January 2024, when Tennessee’s Morristown Fire Department, Hamblen County Rescue Squad and the Jefferson City Fire Department responded to a building fire, there was a very real danger of the fire spreading to surrounding buildings. Enabled with a thermal imager, the deployed drone was able to identify hot spots against the walls of adjacent buildings, followed by fire streams targeted to those hot spots. The next month, the Warren Fire Department in Michigan responded to a chemical spill, assisted by its newly acquired thermal imaging-equipped drones.

But there is more to measurements and signatures than just thermal cameras. Drone cameras are able to provide precise positions of objects, now up to three-quarters of a mile away. Other drone technologies are being developed for fire departments that include sensors to measure particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted as gasses from certain solids or liquids. This advancement would prove significant for fire departments concerned with wildland and brush fire operations. For example, these drones would be prepositioned, detect the signature of a fire, such as smoke without visibility of smoke present, respond and verify the presence of fire conditions.


The UAS sector has seen big leaps in public safety drone technology within the last five years with the ability to mechanically attach and transport objects for life-saving missions. In the past, these applications have included the transport of organs, medicines and even electrical wires. Further, there are several technologies recently available and currently being developed that enable public safety drones to advance their cargo-carrying capabilities. For example, in 2023, firefighters battling the Camp Creek Fire near Portland, Oregon, did not use drones solely for overwatch and mapping. Crews used drones to drop small spherical ignition devices that implemented controlled burn operations. This capability – an advancement in ignition, cargo management and deployment technologies – was a leap in low-elevation precision ignition deployment.

FDNY has also begun relying on the logistics capabilities of drones. In 2023, FDNY implemented an innovative pilot program to test aerial sea rescue devices being dropped from drones to victims. The drone locates a troubled swimmer and drops the flotation device that is then inflated with the help of a carbon dioxide canister once it hits the water.

Additionally, researchers in Spain have successfully tested a 46-pound drone by hovering 49 feet over a small brush fire and extinguishing it with water. Perhaps the next iteration of fire department drones carrying an object will involve a fire hose.


The implementation of autonomous technology into public safety drones will certainly have some of the largest future impacts. Autonomy is currently enabling 360-degree obstacle avoidance, flight recovery from potential collisions, and programmed navigations. Outside of flight controls, autonomy is enabling both indoor and outdoor data captures. As of last year, many drones now have advanced capabilities to autonomously navigate and capture high-resolution 2D and 3D imagery capable of creating digital twins. These same autonomous capabilities can be paired with the many technologies available, to immediately detect, deploy and take action without human intervention.

Speed of response and implementation

Like the drone industry itself, drones themselves are moving at high speed. Within the last year, drones that can travel up to 50 mph have hit the market. Their startup times can be as low as 40 seconds.

Operationally, drones can be housed in remote locations, protected, charged and ready for quick deployment. However, the speed of regulation will continue to dominate the speed of adoption. Autonomy could enable such operations as swarms of drones detecting and deploying without human intervention, but only if regulatory agencies permit drones to be flown outside of a one pilot to one aircraft ratio.

About the Author

Bear Afkhami is an emergency manager with 15 years of experience in prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. He is an FAA-certified Remote Pilot Airman, a Professor of Unmanned & Autonomous Systems at Capitol Technology University in Maryland and one of the Deputy Directors of DroneResponders. Afkhami participates in numerous UAS and AAM standard setting bodies, helping contribute to the safe integration of unmanned vehicles into critical infrastructure sectors, including the NIST Cybersecurity and AI Risk Management for UAS working group, NASA AAM Ecosystem Working Groups, ANSI UASSC, Drone Responders, IEDO, ULTRA and others.