Unmanned Aerial Systems – Urban Firefighting’s next tool?

A hose, a ladder, an axe, protective gear, a truck, a flashlight, a personal locator device, an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), can this be the next technology breakthrough in urban firefighting?

For the past few years discussions of UAS in firefighting have centered around forest-htfires, and how to utilise unmanned assets to better predict movement, document fuel sources in the path and gather data to support deployment efforts to combat the fire. Now, startup companies like Nitrofirex of Spain are developing deployable UAS gliders that will allow Night Time Fighting of Forest Fires. According to company president Luis Bordallo, “Nitrofirex has obtained a global patent on a new approach in the world of the aerial vehicles, which aims to develop the capacity of spraying or spreading a large payload in a hostile, difficult or impossible to access environments using ‘Autonomous Gliding Containers’ (AGC) these carry the payload from C-130 type Launch Aircraft (LA) from altitude. The payload is delivered to the programmed release point autonomously with pinpoint accuracy. Once empty and removed from the fire zone, the AGC begin their recovery phase by means of their engine, recovering and landing in the base of operation of the LA in a completely autonomous way. The company is still in the viability and design phase, but has the attention of university researchers, investors, and the aeronautical community.”

So if this could be the future of aerial forest fire fighting, how can UAS impact the urban or metropolitan firefighter? We have all read articles and heard statements from politicians about the ‘privacy concerns’ of using unmanned aircraft in law enforcement applications, so how does the firefighting community avoid the political issues of incorporating UAS into the basic tools that are currently used to protect property and save lives of citizens and first responders?
One company that is working to solve this problem is Information Processing Systems Inc. (IPS). For over 40 years, IPS has specialized in building interoperable communications systems for first responders and the military. These quickly deployable Mobile Command Vehicles (MCV) and incident command mobile carts integrate these aerial, ground, and subsurface remotely controlled robotic platforms with cameras and sensors into a ground control station. Each UAS or Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) is connected with or without a tether to the ground station which provides the GIS software solution for providing a Common Operating Picture (COP) to First Responders on scene – as well as a backhaul via satellite to the strategic command.

In the last twelve years, there have been tremendous efforts made to make sure that in emergency response situations, all first responders have the ability to communicate seamlessly across all responding agency radio communication systems. We could envision a new situation where first responders could be creating stand alone islands of both Metadata and Video data. Command Centers are now accumulating from these independent robotic sensors (such as UAS, ROV, throwbots, and other unmanned platforms) large databases of actionable data that benefits all responding agencies and not having the means to share this information to all responding agencies. There was a possibility that the National Guard would arrive with their UAS; the County Sheriff’s department with their ROV for underwater search and rescue; the local police with their aerial asset, the Fire Department with their UAS, and Federal agencies like DHS or Forest Service could all arrive on scene with manned/unmanned assets and each one with their own Command and Control UAS/ROV response vehicle. So we began working with industry manufacturers like VideoRay, Hoverfly, RP Flight, Sofcoast, and ISIS Copters to integrate their UAS and ROV products into the IPS MCV, with the focus on creating the next generation of incident response vehicle. But like most commercial companies, we focused our sales and marketing efforts on the homeland security market.

However, we quickly learned from our UAS manufacturing partners that in today’s personal and political environment, safe free flight of UAS in the national airspace for security and surveillance in most countries is still being evaluated and studied, and awaiting regulation by government agencies responsible for aviation safety and addressing the public’s privacy concerns.
In an effort to develop alternate marketing opportunities, we exhibited the IPS Nexgen MCV with aerial and underwater unmanned systems at the recent FDIC 2013 (Fire Department Instructors Conference) held in Indianapolis, we learned from departments from all over the world that they are looking for UAS solutions that are quickly deployable, cost effective, public-friendly tools for creating immediate situational awareness upon arriving on site. We heard current methods for developing an aerial view that provides actionable information to help commanders make informed decisions at the response site could range from camera – mounted mast on trucks; to cameras mounted on snorkel or ladder trucks; to watching video from the news helicopter or in some instances the Police helicopter can provide video to a responding police car. These all have some value to emergency responders, but many times what they really need is not just situational awareness – they also need persistent (constant) surveillance.

One very powerful tool for situational awareness and persistent surveillance is a tethered UAS, either a rotary wing quadcopter or hexacopter capable of maintaining a controlled hover at 150ft above the scene and we are not alone in that assessment. One of the leading UAS industry experts, Patrick Egan who is the Editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems) News and the host and executive producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series was recently quoted as saying, “Those in the UAS industry looking for a lasting opportunity should be beating a path to the firefighter end-users door with systems that address safe, controlled, cost effective platforms that cannot be bundled under the misleading term ‘drones’ and will become just another tool in saving lives and property in large dwelling, structure fires or Hazmat situations.”

For example, as a Battalion Chief, you are dispatched to a multiple alarm structure fire in your operations area, from each of your four assigned stations you have a truck respond that has a tethered hexacopter UAS with a high definition (HD) and infrared (IR) camera attached. The UAS is deployed from a box mounted on the top of the truck. The box contains a tether management system which provides power and a fibre optic video link down to the truck and broadcast capability to other responding equipment, command centers, tablets, or personal viewing devices. The UAS features an autopilot system that maintains altitude and position within 1 metre in winds gusting to 35 knots. The UAS is effective in temperature ranges from minus 10 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and can maintain flight in rainfall up to 25mm per hour. Operation in thunderstorm conditions has the same risk or guidelines as a ladder or snorkel truck.

As the trucks arrive on scene, they are deployed to each side of the fire. The engineer or driver immediately deploys the UAS to a programmed altitude determined by the structure height. On your in-vehicle monitor, you have access to all four incoming video feeds as you arrive on scene. The cameras can be controlled for pan, tilt, zoom or could be programmed in sweep mode to provide a 360 degree view of the surrounding structures, hazards, and citizens, vehicles, and access roads. Situational awareness is now being provided by ground and air in HD or IR in real time video images to command staff, ground leaders, and individual firefighters within minutes of arrival.

Upon your arrival, you deploy a portable command center from the back of your vehicle with monitors, radio communications, and a Common Operating Picture (COP) view showing the position of fire vehicles; personnel; all commercial, public, private aircraft above the scene; and current weather conditions in a real time view. You can click on an asset and the video being broadcast will be displayed in a window on the display. All communications, video, and equipment and personnel positioning can be archived for later review or for training purposes.
During the FDIC show, we were approached by a fire boat manufacturer who after hearing the explanation of the UAS capability has begun offering the tethered UAS solution as an option on their fire boats. The only difference in the scenario is that all maritime traffic in the operations area would be displayed on the boat Captains COP.

There are numerous scenarios that could be defined where the UAS could play a key role in reducing the loss of property and life.
The UAS described in the example above are currently being built and tested by both Hoverfly in Winter Springs, FL and ISIS Copters in Carlsbad, CA for the urban firefighting market. Suggested acquisition cost for systems currently being developed by both companies depending on number of rotors, camera type and image resolution would range from $30,000 to $75,000. Quick Deployment carts and MCV’s with integrated aerial, underwater, and ground robot capability are available from IPS NexGen in San Carlos, CA, will range from $18,000 to $250,000 and the COP software developed by Simulyze, Inc and is available as a deployed server configuration for commercial applications, public agencies, and Educational Research Institutions has a license cost of $75,000.
One of the issues common to the adoption of emerging technology in existing markets, especially within public agencies at local or state level is grant availability or funding sources. We believe that fire vehicle manufacturers will begin to offer integrated UAS as an option on all new equipment. Until that time, consider maintenance costs, truck upgrade or equipment improvement funds as sources of funding for UAS acquisition.

A major concern of most departments, who have expressed an interest or have pursued acquiring a UAS for their operations, has been the issue of having to obtain a Certificate of Authorisation (COA) prior to flight and current government restrictions pertaining to Free Flight UAS operations in the national airspace. One of the reasons for utilising low altitude, small form factor tethered UAS solutions is the elimination of ‘uncontrolled fly away events’ which could jeopardise manned aircraft operations. A tethered UAS can be compared to a kite or blimp operation requiring minimal or no government Aviation Authority regulations.

For information on the companies or organisations mentioned in this article, visit their websites:

David Copenhaver and Frank Woodward have a combined 50 years experience in helping emerging small and large technology companies develop sales and marketing strategies for the public and private sector marketplace.
Frank has over 25 years of operational and business development experience, working with companies in the marketing, sales, and development of leading edge technologies including Light Surveillance Aircraft, UAV’s, HD/IR video, and Software Development. Frank was responsible for obtaining the first GSA schedule and DHS Safety Act certification given to a surveillance aerostat company in the US.
David and Frank have international business development experience in delivering security and mission improvement solutions in the European and Asian markets.

For more information, contact David at [email protected] or Frank at[email protected]