While consumer drones get the splashy and sometimes overblown headlines, the technology is quickly being embraced by cities across the United States for applications ranging from firefighting to search and rescue. Departments are already repurposing off-the-shelf drones to aid in a variety of situations.
DJI, a leader in the consumer space, is moving to carve out a niche of enterprise capable drones. The recent addition of the Matrice 200 allows the deployment of multiple camera payloads including zoom-capable video, infrared systems (FLIR) and high-resolution cameras.
The impacts are already being felt across the states in various public safety situations.
Firefighting With Drones
Most headlines you read are public officials urging the public to stay away from fires with personal drones. But the same technology is being deployed to help map fires, guide firefighters to hot spots and general surveillance of the scene. A drone can quickly offer the commander on the ground a bird’s eye view of the scene and help guide responding units into the best possible position.
FDNY Deploys Custom Drone
The New York City Fire Department is already adding drones to its arsenal. A recent NYTimes piece detailed the $85,000 custom drone, which can send back both standard video and infrared images. Painted fire engine red, the department jokingly considered having the ‘Keep Back 200 Feet’ painted on to mimic the city’s fire engines.
Daniel A. Nigro, NYC’s current fire commissioner, talked to the Times about the newest firefighting weapon:
“That tool for a chief is just night and day from what it was not just 30 years ago when I started, but 15 years ago. And moving forward, technology like this is a terrific advantage for us and for fire departments around the country.”
FDNY’s interest in drone technology was initially sparked by the 2014 East Harlem gas explosion which killed eight. A local sent up his personal drone which captured an excellent overview of the scene. Two years of research and development later, the FDNY had its own.
Coral Springs and Rescue Drone Deployment
In April, the Coral Springs, FL Fire and Rescue Department deployed one of its drones to help contain a blaze at a local Dollar Tree. No special research and development for the drone used in the video below. It’s an off-the-shelf DJI Inspire 1 with an FLIR camera attached.
In addition to the Inspire, the department has a Mavic and a Phantom. And because it’s Florida, they released a statement saying the drones wouldn’t be used in surveillance operations, though plans for the Mavic include indoor hostage rescue scenarios.
That’s not how Mavic works, but Florida will be Florida (I was born in Homestead). Isn’t the idea for the hostage taker not to hear you coming? I know. We all watched A.P.B. on Fox and thought, taser on a drone? Badass.
Maybe stick to the firefighting applications for now.
2015 Olympic National Park Paradise Fire
In 2015, the National Park Service deployed an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, to map the Paradise fire. It was a test of the technology on whether it could be applied to wildfire management. During the Paradise Fire, the drone sent back infrared footage, proving the technology could supplement the use of manned aircraft, especially in situations when lack of visibility presents a danger to pilots.
Here’s video of the fire captured by the drone:
Incident commanders on the ground credit the system with keeping the fire contained to 2800 acres despite the extremely dry conditions.
Funding the Next Generation of Public Safety Drones
DJI is a clear leader in the market, and the Matrice line of drones offer public safety departments across the country the ability to customize payloads without wrecking budgets. The NYFD drone costs $85,000, and while the Matrice 200 line hasn’t released pricing, estimates are around $16,000. A Zenmuse XT FLIR, which attaches to an Inspire, is priced at $6,600 – $8500.
According to the company, drones have saved at least 59 people in 18 separate incidents around the world. The survey, found here, shows more than one-third of people rescued with the help of drones were operated by civilian bystanders offering to help first responders.
“The clear conclusion is that drones are regularly saving lives around the world. This is occurring even though professional rescue crews are just beginning to adopt UAS technology, and in many cases are relying on bystanders or volunteers to provide lifesaving assistance,” concludes the report from DJI’s Policy & Legal Affairs Department. “DJI is at the forefront in efforts to develop best practices and optimal standards for firefighters, rescue services and other first responders to integrate drones into their command protocols. As these efforts continue, we expect the number of lives saved by drones to continue to grow.”
Consulting companies have already sprung up to help departments in all 50 states. SkyFire Consulting is owned and operated by former public safety officials to help local agencies with training, and certification with drones. The company also promises to help obtain a blanket COA from the FAA to operate in restricted zones.
In an emergency, time is a luxury no fire and rescue department can afford.
Whether it’s the deployment in wildfires, FDNY’s addition to its arsenal, or the use of an off-the-shelf Inspire, it’s clear drones are already saving lives and represent the next step in public safety technology.