Fire Department Network News report San Diego State University flying wings

Drones, small unmanned aerial vehicles also referred to as ‘birds,’ have typically been used in only military applications. The San Diego State University’s Visualization Center has been working with firefighters in an attempt to show the drone’s usefulness to the fire service as well.

“One big difference with the military birds is many of them are very expensive . . . a Predator or a Global Hawk . . . those birds have to be up so high, that the resolution isn’t as good as this [their drone]. So, this actually gives you better imagery for a dramatically less price,” says Dr. Eric Frost, Director of the SDSU Visualization Center.

Using the drone instead of firefighting helicopters does not just save money. It also eliminates the risk of having to place a pilot in the air. The drone is lightweight, can fly in high winds, and can take off from virtually any location. It has two cameras; one for streaming video that can be watched in real time online and one that takes high resolution pictures. Typically, it soars 400 to 500 feet above the ground and can go as high as 12,000 feet. The drone can stay in the air for about an hour, running off an electronic motor system.

There are several advantages to using the ‘Viz Center’s’ drone, as opposed to a military bird. Michael Henning, drone operator for the SDSU Visualization Center, explains, “With most of the other UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] aircraft that are out there, everything is a federal asset or a DOD type asset, government owned. Problems with that is all the imagery coming off those systems needs to go through a process before it can be released, so, that’s great. During the last wildfires here in San Diego, they had the Predator flying, but initially, by the time the imagery was taken from the bird and processed down to the EOC environment, the imagery was several hours old. In a high moving wildfire, that’s absolutely useless to everybody, and that’s because it was a federal level asset. With this aircraft, I can go to any scene, anywhere, launch, and be able to share that imagery immediately, be it to a battalion chief on the ground, an IC on the ground, an EOC, anywhere we need to.”

Controlling the drone from the ground is easier than you might think. The aircraft also features an auto-pilot mode. It can be given GPS coordinates and it will fly that pattern automatically. In the event of the next major fires in San Diego, many are anticipating the use of the SDSU Visualization Center’s drone.

Author:Deanne Goodman –

The flying wings were provided by