In recent years, drones have become more powerful and easier to use. They have found their homes in many industries, thanks to their ability to be controlled remotely or even to operate autonomously. The increased commercialization of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones has made the technology more accessible to public safety agencies, including fire departments, nationwide.
Drones firefighting solutions have emerged as a result of technological advancements. Over the last several years, drones firefighting devices have proven their usefulness in assisting human firefighters battling everything from house fires to wildfires. As virtual eyes in the sky, drones can give valuable information back to human firefighters on the ground, who can use that information to assess the situation more accurately and develop an informed plan of action.
While we often think of drones as small flying vehicles, many drones firefighting examples prove that these autonomous vehicles can be heavy-duty and are able to carry a large load to support emergency responders.
Let’s take a look at some of the drones firefighting capabilities that many firefighters are utilizing now that will continue to influence how we fight fires in the future.
5 Examples of Drones Firefighting Capabilities
Drones firefighting uses have been recognized since as early as 2009. The army has been using drones firefighting capabilities for at least a decade. Between 2009 and 2017, 69 fire departments purchased drones.
In March 2017, FDNY first deployed a tethered drones firefighting in response to a four-alarm fire that was taking place in a six-story building. This is an early example of a major fire department in the U.S. utilizing drones firefighting abilities to combat a raging fire and save lives in the process.
Since then, drones firefighting technology has continued to advance and improve how fire departments and other public safety agencies approach disasters.
Here are five ways that drones firefighting capabilities impact how international fire departments approach and manage fires in and around their communities.
1. Drones Firefighting at Night
Wildfires don’t care what time of day it is. Firefighters are generally forced to pause their efforts at night when fighting wildfires, which lets the fires grow and expand. New drones firefighting technology can help firefighters continue to battle wildfires at all hours of the day and night so the fire can better focus their efforts.
The Andalusian authority in Spain uses drones firefighting through the ELIMCO 300 with FÉNIX. This forest fire fighting planning and monitoring system allows drones firefighting to track wildfires as they rage into the night.
The powerful drones firefighting technology can be launched remotely and operate for an hour and a half from up to 27 miles away. At night, the drones firefighting device can get as far as 62 miles from its launch point and hover over a wildfire for up to three hours. As it hovers, the drone can send geo-tagged thermal images to mobile command centers. The firefighters at these command centers can use the real-time information they receive from the drones firefighting application to locate and address specific spots they want to target to fight the wildfire.
2. Drones Firefighting Technologies that Detect Hazardous Materials
The NASA-approved Viking 400-S unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is a drones firefighting tool that can operate for up to 12 hours at a time and be equipped with 100 pounds of payload technologies. These can include biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological detectors. This powerful UAS drones firefighting device can be used as a first responder for hazmat emergencies without endangering human first responders.
This UAS can perform drones firefighting operations by allowing firefighters to stay back a safe distance of up to 70 miles and collect CBRN information from the scene. The drone has high-resolution cameras that can accurately capture and transmit high-resolution images of either natural or manmade disasters back to the command center. Firefighters and first responders can analyze that information to prioritize resources and determine where to strike first.
3. Mobile Command Vehicles Enhance Drones Firefighting Capabilities
Many public safety agencies are utilizing informational processing systems mobile command vehicles (MCVs) with drones firefighting devices. MCVs are essentially custom mobile ground control stations for drones and other UAVs. An example is a modified Ford truck that houses sensors, radar, communication infrastructure, and security cameras to represent the command center. The truck can be additionally modified with trailers that can carry multiple drones firefighting systems as well as other UAVs.
From here, responders can launch and monitor drones’ firefighting progress and make adjustments to their plan based on the information the drones relay back to them. This sort of mobile deployment system can be useful in urban and remote areas alike. For wildland fires, an MCV can quickly move and track drones firefighting to assess the situation accurately. In urban areas, drones firefighting can send back aerial videos that can help those operating the mobile command centers make informed decisions about how to approach the situation.
4. Lightweight Drones Firefighting
The above examples of drones firefighting are large and well-equipped to transmit necessary information back to their command center. Another approach that some fire departments are taking is to utilize lightweight drones firefighting, such as the eBee drone from Sensefly. These drones weigh only 1.5 pounds and have a 37.8-inch wingspan. They are lightweight in part because of their size and partly because they are made out of a foam airframe.
These drones are equipped with a tiny, high-quality camera that can shoot aerial images at a 3 cm/pixel resolution. Their flight time is up to 50 minutes, which can cover up to 10 miles. Users can control up to 10 eBees, so for drones firefighting, that can have a significant impact and cover a lot of the fire. These drones’ firefighting use cases include being small and portable enough for firefighters to carry with them as they approach wildfires. Human firefighters can release eBees to better assess the situation at any time without hindering their ability to carry on with their duties.
5. Heavy-Lift Drones Firefighting
Finally, the K-Max multi-mission helicopter is a heavy-lift unmanned aerial truck (UAT) that has a 6,000 payload capacity. This UAT can move people as well as gear in and out of a hazardous area without further endangering personnel. The K-Max drones firefighting capabilities include providing supplies to emergency responders and firefighters, such as food, water, or communications supplies. This life-saving drones firefighting technology can respond to everything from raging wildfires to stranded hikers and everything in between.
In 2011, an early version of the K-Max supported US Marines for 33 months in Afghanistan. During the deployment, the K-Max delivered 4.5 million pounds of cargo to U.S. Marines stationed in combat zones located at remote outposts. The company estimates that the K-Max prevented the equivalent of 900 ground convoy vehicles from making the potentially dangerous trek to deliver these supplies. It undoubtedly saved lives as it safely delivered needed materials to troops.
Drones firefighting technology has made it safer and faster for emergency teams to assess and respond to emergencies. From house fires to wildfires, drones firefighting capabilities can help fire departments worldwide make more informed decisions and keep fires from expanding. They have already saved lives and will continue to do so as more agencies adopt drones firefighting technology into their departments.