Drones Provide Valuable Help in Fighting Fires

Drones are proving their worth in firefighting and emergency response. They can fly to places humans can’t access to collect and share information that improves tactical operations, protects firefighters, and saves lives and land.

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Image credit: Drone Amplified (IGNIS)

Firefighting is hazardous, hot, hard work, no matter the location. Whether it’s a burning building or a wildfire in a forest, firefighters can use extra eyes and hands to gain control of the situation. Unmanned aerial vehicles are swooping in to provide assistance.

Urban Flame

Six years ago, the New York City Fire Department started using drones to help fight fires. Part of the NYFD Command Tactical Unit, the department’s drone pilots are on scene assisting the battalion chief and firefighters on the ground. The city uses Mavic series drones from DJI Enterprise to record and stream real-time video to the commander at the scene.

DJI’s Mavic 3 has an omnidirectional binocular vision system with infrared sensors and an integrated 4/3 CMOS Hasselblad camera. It can travel up to 200 meters, tops out at 42 mph, and can fly or hover for about 45 minutes.

The drones provide visual images of the top or back of a building, which the commander, stationed at the front, can’t view. Drones also follow the path of firefighters as they climb up ladders or into buildings, providing information about what lies beyond their view. Integrated thermal imaging allows the drones to pinpoint hot spots, making it easier to put fires out at the source even when smoke impairs first responders’ line of sight.

Drone Amplified mobile dashboard

Image credit: Drone Amplified

Fire in the Wild

Beyond the city limits, drones are being used to help tackle large-scale wildfires. Climate change and deforestation have led to conditions that enable often uncontrollable wildfires that can burn for days or even weeks. One proven method of containing fires is to do a controlled burn, which wipes out a line of flammable debris that otherwise fuels the fire and makes it easier for firefighters to gain control of the situation.

Launching a controlled burn can be extremely difficult near a wildfire. The terrain often is hard to reach and proximity to the wildfire makes it hazardous for firefighters. A startup tech company from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is hoping to change that.

Drone Amplified, founded by two UNL professors, has developed IGNIS, a souped-up drone with integrated cameras and ADS-B for situational awareness that can drop small firebombs to specific locations. A Freefly Alta X drone is outfitted with a hopper that can hold up to 400 ping pong ball-sized orbs, called dragon eggs. 

When ready to launch, each dragon egg drops into an injector/igniter system and is dropped from the drone at a rate up to 120 per minute. The chemical-filled spheres ignite 30-60 seconds after being dropped, enabling firefighters to create a controlled burn.

The drone connects to a customized ground base station based on HereLink Blue. It is controlled by an Android app, which allows operators to automate the altitude and duration of the flight and the orb delivery. Operators also can specify how many dragon eggs to drop, where to drop them, and the time between drops. The app enables users to establish a geofence to ensure the drone stays within a specific area.

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