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Fire Departments Across the U.S. are Embracing Drone Technology

Trial by fire

August 9, 2016

Firefighters labored tirelessly, thousands of residents fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched in the Alberta, Canada, wildfire that sparked in early May. The fire is set to become the most costly disaster in Canada’s history.

Tragic incidents such as this remind us that fire can sometimes outsmart even our most advanced firefighting technologies and best-trained professionals. Difficult to tame and contain, fire demands firefighting tools that are cutting-edge and innovative. And that’s where drones come in.

In the past few years, stories about firefighting and UAVs have primarily focused on civilian drone operators interfering with firefighting efforts, not on the ways drones can be used as valuable tools. But as the smoke begins to clear, more and more cities across the U.S. are starting to implement UAV programs to help extinguish the flames.

Notably, the Alberta government partnered with Elevated Robotic Services, a company that specializes in aerial surveying, mapping, and disaster response, to help determine the starting point and cause of the Alberta fires.

Some firefighters even go so far as to say that drones are just as necessary a tool as the fire hose. From orchestrating prescribed burns to providing lifesaving inspections, drones can assist firefighting efforts in a plethora of applications.
Only UAS can prevent forest fires

Sometimes it’s best to fight fire with fire — literally. That’s what Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum, members of the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Lab, are doing with their Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting (UAS-FF).

The UAS-FF is a new system for aerial ignition, a method of firestarting used for prescribed burns. While it may seem counterintuitive to burn the brush and forest lands that they’re trying to save, these burns actually improve the health of the area by controlling the amount of vegetative fuel. And the UAS-FF lets firefighters burn safely, quickly, and precisely.

NIMBUS equipped the UAS-FF, a heavily-modified Ascending Technologies Firefly hexacopter, with temperature and wind sensors and a large hopper to carry the aerial ignition spheres — small plastic balls filled with chemicals that create a time-delayed exothermic reaction.

The UAS-FF has received a positive response thus far, Detweiler says. “We’ve been really surprised by how willing so many people in this area are to work with us and give us feedback on the design and performance of the systems.”

Groups ranging from the FAA to the National Park Service have had a hand in the project. “I think a large group of people, from local landowners to these federal agencies, see this as a tool that can really change the way they operate,” Detweiler muses.
The Kiowa County Media Center filmed the Anderson Creek fire via drone, the largest wildfire in Kansas’ history. Kiowa County Media Center
"Rather than put somebody's life in danger to get close enough, you can send a piece of plastic in there."
But as much as prescribed burns help prevent wildfires, sparks will inevitably fly. And when those flames do begin to spread, it’s important to raise awareness. This way, the public can contribute aid to firefighting efforts and those affected.

Wildfires scorch thousands of acres every year, and people who live in urban areas or far away from susceptible environments may sometimes find it hard to understand the extent of such fires. Aerial images, which drones can provide in a way that is both convenient and affordable, help capture the scope of the fires and the damage they cause.

Grant Neuhold, creative director of the Kiowa County Media Center (KCMC) in Greensburg, KS, believes drones allow the public a greater understanding of a wildfire’s consequences. In late March, the KCMC ventured out with its DJI Inspire 1 to record the Anderson Creek wildfire in Kansas.

The images themselves are stunning, but the sweeping panoramas also show the magnitude of the fires. Neuhold says, “Our hope was that [the video] would help people realize the scope of what was taking place in order to feel compelled to aid those in need.”

KCMC posted the video to social media, asking people to share it and add links to resources for those affected by the fires. The South Central Community Foundation (SCCF), a nonprofit organization supporting residents in south central Kansas, reposted the video and provided a donation link. And it worked — the SCCF raised over $13,000 from public awareness initiatives like the KCMC aerial video, and 100% of those funds will go toward aiding the affected south central Kansas communities.
Hot to trot

But when it comes time to put drones in the hands of firefighters themselves, many departments are unsure how to begin. That’s where consulting company Skyfire, the official fire rescue partner of DJI, comes into play.

Matt Sloane, CEO and founder of Skyfire, started working with fire departments back in 2014. Now, Skyfire actively works with about 20 departments to develop UAS programs. Sloane, a former journalist with a background as an emergency medical technician, explains that he was just fulfilling a need.

After a presentation on the benefits of drone journalism, several audience members approached Sloane. He says, “Several fire chiefs who were in the meeting asked how they could get drones for their department. We started the business the next day to answer that very question.”

Sloane says that departments may hesitate to adopt new technology. However, drone use has spread quickly, much like the fires UAVs help fight. “One department gets it and then everyone around them seems to be interested.”

He emphasizes that many departments feel that they can’t afford not to invest in emerging UAS technology. While $1,000 for a drone may seem like a lot to a civilian, emergency service workers are used to paying big bucks for lifesaving equipment. “When you consider the cost of just putting a tire on a fire engine, everything’s relative,” Sloane says.
Drones, like the DJI Inspire 1 above, provide a helpful perspective on controlled burns, allowing incident commanders a better understanding of how the fire is moving and behaving.
Garret Bryl
Don’t know? Don’t go.

UAVs aren’t yet sophisticated enough to fight fires themselves, but they have become an important tool in extinguishing flames safely and efficiently.

A major development in firefighting technology is FLIR, or forward looking infrared, sensing technology. FLIR Systems, founded in 1978, specializes in the production of thermal imaging cameras that utilize infrared sensors.

There are a variety of handheld FLIR sensors on the market, ranging anywhere from $500 to $5,000. These devices are standard in the industry — Sloane explains that every fire department will have at least one handheld FLIR sensor in their firefighting toolkit.

These cameras detect thermal-infrared energy — be it from the blaze or the body of a firefighter — and turn it into an electronic signal. This signal is then converted into images that communicate precise details about where the fire is burning hottest, isolated hot spots, and safe points of entry. As an additional bonus, even the densest smoke doesn’t interfere with FLIR’s imaging capabilities.

However, these sensors do have drawbacks: Display size is limited (a 4-inch display is large), scope is reduced to what the firefighter can see on the ground, and a handheld device adds to the gear a crew needs to carry into a fire.

DJI has addressed these issues with the release of the DJI Zenmuse XT, a small, FLIR-enabled gimbal camera. Compatible with the DJI Inspire 1 and Matrice 100 models, the Zenmuse XT is “a complete game-changer for the industry,” according to Sloane.

Flying the FLIR sensor on a drone above a fire improves the sensor’s efficacy, he says, allowing firefighters to gather 10 times the information.

Sloane explains that when a rescue team arrives at a fire, the first thing they do is perform a 360-degree survey of the fire. Typically, firefighters laden with equipment walk around the fire, which can be dangerous and time-consuming. Firefighters can use drones to more quickly and accurately assess a scene than they could otherwise do on foot.

Add hazardous material to the mix, and the level of danger increases manifold with possible explosions or toxic gases mingled with the smoke. When dangerous or unknown materials are present at a scene, drones help keep rescue workers out of harm’s way. “Rather than put somebody’s life in danger to get close enough, you can send a piece of plastic in there. If it gets contaminated or crashes, you’re out 600 or 1,000 bucks, but nobody’s life is in danger,” says Sloane.

When asked about exemplary departments or pilots using drones for firefighting, Sloane offered an immediate and certain response.

He mentioned a department in the town of Joshua, TX, just south of Fort Worth. “There’s a volunteer there, his name’s Garret Bryl,” he said. “That’s who you want to talk to.”
Ride of the Valkyrie

Garret Bryl is something of a celebrity in the emergency response drone community. He has saved victims of severe flooding, aided in multiple search-and-rescue missions, and established a flight school at the Joshua Fire Department — all with the help of his DJI Inspire 1, which was bestowed the name Valkyrie by Joshua Fire Chief Wayne Baker.

“The fire department is buried in tradition,” says Bryl. “They tend to give names to things that roll back to the old mythology. [Baker] said, ‘This thing has become an epic tool for us. We’ve gotta give this thing a proper name.’”

And so, Chief Baker bestowed the name Valkyrie on the drone. Bryl admits that he initially didn’t know the name’s significance, but now he’s well-versed in its background.

“The Valkyries, whenever a warrior died on the battlefield, would come down and pick up the worthy people and carry their souls and take them to Valhalla,” he explains. “The Valkyries would save the souls, and that’s what we’re doing as well. Valkyrie helps to save souls in the heat of the mess.”

Long before the first flight of the Valkyrie, Bryl was flying drones recreationally. Three years ago, Bryl’s wife challenged him to put his drone skills to good use. Soon after, an acquaintance mentioned the Joshua Fire Department might benefit from having an aerial view.

Bryl arranged a meeting with Chief Baker to discuss the potential for firefighting UAVs and performed a demo of his flight capabilities. Now, Bryl has almost two years of experience flying drones in support of fire and police departments, helping save souls in whatever way he and his drone can.
When fire departments and UAV pilots collaborate effectively, everyone benefits. Volunteer firefighter Garret Bryl captured this stunning shot from his drone Valkyrie during a flight to monitor the progress of a controlled burn.
A flame by any other name

Bryl speaks plainly, with clear passion and investment in his work. With about 650 flights under his belt and more experience than many other emergency UAS operators, Bryl has a lot to be proud of. But even when describing his many successful endeavors with the Valkyrie, he doesn’t brag. It’s just what he does.

“I’m an engineer,” explains Bryl. “People come to me with problems and I come up with solutions. It’s kind of a natural thing for me.”

So it only makes sense that he was one of the pioneers of the movement to integrate UAS into firefighting arsenals across the country. “I knew it could be done and should be looked into, so I did,” he says.

But it’s not as simple as Bryl makes it seem. In wildland fires, thermal currents often make flying difficult, and there are a lot of variables to keep an eye out for.

“In a wildland fire, you’re looking for point of entry, access to the fire, [and] what’s in the path of the fire. You’re worried about where the [fire] is going,” Bryl explains.

Structural fires are typically more contained, so flight patterns can be more direct. But just because the fire is enclosed doesn’t mean it’s an easy task. Bryl say, “In a structure fire, you’re looking for hot spots on the roof, you’re looking for flares, you’re looking for personal accountability — all that stuff.”
If UAVs are spotted in the airspace while firefighting helicopters are in use, the manned aircraft are required to land to ensure the safety of the pilots.
U.S. forest service
If you fly, they can’t

But for all the differences between types of fires, Bryl says that one thing remains consistent: He’s not the ultimate decision maker. He doesn’t want his drone to be a disruption — it’s a tool and should be used as such. “Whenever I show up, the very first thing I do is find the incident commander and offer my help to him,” he says. “At that point, it’s whatever he needs to see.”

Bryl works hard to play by the rules, meeting with the proper authorities and following protocol at every step of the process. Likely because of this, he has little patience for the irresponsible drone operators who have generated bad press with their disruptive behavior.

During last summer’s California wildfire season, manned aerial firefighting efforts were grounded due to interference from drone operators. “They need to either work with emergency services or stay the heck out of the way,” Bryl says.

But, he adds, departments who lag behind in their acceptance of UAS are just as much a problem as irresponsible pilots.

“I don’t particularly like or appreciate the fire departments that tend to have this anti-drone mentality, that all they need is a fire hose and a guy holding it,” Bryl says. “Those guys are stuck in a rut, and I have as little respect for those guys as I do for the drone pilots that are flying and interfering with the fire departments.”

Despite the negative press, Bryl emphasizes that, without a doubt, UAS are the future for emergency services. Not in the next 10 or even five years, but within two or three. He says that within an hour’s drive of Joshua, every department you pass will be equipped with a drone. “Any department that doesn’t have one is kind of neglecting their duties.”
"Any department that doesn't have [a drone] is kind of neglecting their duties."
Sparking innovation

As far as drone technology has come for firefighters, there is still significant progress to be made. Sloane mentions the current lack of quality zoom cameras in emergency services. While DJI has recently added digital zoom capabilities to its app, optical zoom cameras would enable much more precise imaging capabilities.

And as in many other UAS applications, battery life remains a primary concern, especially when emergency services can be at fire scenes for upwards of 10 hours at a time. Tethered drones such as the WATT from Drone Aviation offer drastically extended battery life. However, it and other similar drones can cost over $100,000.

Both Sloane and Bryl envision a system in which firefighters are equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors that can be visually monitored by UAVs. This would help incident commanders make well-informed decisions with increased situational awareness. “If one [sensor] stops moving,” explains Bryl, “you know exactly where to go and drag that guy out and save his life.”

At the Decatur Fire Department in Georgia, Sloane is working to implement an Internet of Things approach.

“What we do is put Bluetooth sensors on all the equipment but also on the firefighters and the rescuers. When you’re out on a rescue scene, you can fly a drone overhead, and it’ll tell you exactly where all your people and your equipment are,” he explains.

Skyfire and DJI have also partnered to create the Drone Advocates for Public Safety (DAPS), a nonprofit that aims to empower first responders with drone technology essential for preventing injury and saving lives. “Outside of our sales jobs, we’re trying to really make this a technology that fire departments adopt,” says Sloane.

In the end, that’s the primary goal for everyone involved: Help communicate the lifesaving benefits of drone technology and get UAS into as many departments as possible.

For Bryl, there are few allowable excuses. “To turn their nose up at [a drone] because they’re either intimidated by it or afraid of it or scared of the controversy … that’s not an acceptable response to me.”

So next time you see a plume of smoke billowing in the distance, look to the skies for a drone like Valkyrie, swooping in and saving souls.

Note: A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Drone360 magazine.
Featured image: Garret Bryl