Aerial supremacy

Drone aircraft have seen a boom in popularity over the past few years, both for recreation and for more serious applications. The ability of a drone to get to hard-to-reach, dangerous, or simply high, areas has become invaluable, but just how are they being applied to the fire & rescue services, and how are they helping prevent, and fight fires?

Many fire services already have the ability to request drone assistance, and sometimes this is done automatically depending on the size of the fire. Some services in the UK will look to mobilise a drone in any situation where four fire engines or more are deployed. They can be used to help find missing casualties, inspect collapsed structures before sending personnel in, and provide a bird’s eye view of larger situations such as moorland fires, floods and large scale road traffic accidents (RTCs).

In wildfire situations, on scene command can use footage from aerial drones to locate hotspots, and track the progress of the fire. A wider overview of the area affected can ensure that personnel and resources are deployed effectively, and safely. Being able to track a fire’s progress, and any course changes in real time, gives better situational awareness and the opportunity to move personnel and the local population away from danger before it’s too late. In the past, command have had to rely on second hand information from teams on the ground, giving a broken picture of the situation as opposed to a complete overhead, real time picture available from a team of drones. Thermal cameras on drones also mean that situational data can still be gathered in thick smoke, where normal cameras would struggle to get a clear picture.

There are other ways drones are being deployed to help combat wildfires. Prescribed burns can be administered from drones fitted with specialist equipment. The IGNIS system created by Drone Amplified can deliver its payload of chemicals via ping pong sized balls. Just before they’re released, each ball is injected with anti-freeze, which mixes with the potassium permanganate inside. By the time the ball reaches the ground, it’s burning. The precise delivery method allows teams to manipulate the course of a wildfire and can often be done by a smaller team from a safer distance than more traditional methods. The system was deployed on 488 aerial ignition missions in 2020, across the USA. These provided not just the prescribed burns, but also recognisance data which would otherwise have only been reachable by costly helicopter deployment or long expeditions. In 2020 alone, over l5,000 acres were treated in this manner.

Search and rescue teams are also utilising drones, rather than calling on helicopters which can be costly and limited in their ability to reach more secluded areas. Similarly, to wildfires, thermal images can be used to locate potential casualties, and deliver lifesaving equipment to remote locations, while more help is on the way. Many models also have the ability to be used as a communication device between the casualty and rescue teams, enabling more information on the casualty to be relayed back to command before they’re rescued, and for rescuers to provide reassurance that help is on the way. These specialist drones can efficiently cover larger areas, are quick and cost effective to deploy and can easily reach difficult-to-access areas and tricky terrain, with data being used to build 2D and 3D models for situational awareness.

Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates’ General Civil Aviation Authority granted the Dubai Civil defence approval for the use of 180 firefighting drones, to provide support in hard-to­ reach spaces such as the many high-rise buildings in the region. This is after the UAE’s ban in January of the use of recreational drones due to a terrorist attack at an oil facility and a major airport in Yemen. Elsewhere, Sacramento Metro Fire Service has 17 drones in use responding to fires, floods and SAR calls – although the U.S Government has recently restricted the import of some drones made in China, which has made it more difficult to deploy drones to help fight wildfires.

Fires in high rise buildings can present specific difficulties for firefighting teams, when it comes to extinguishing fires at height. There are now different designs of drone created for the delivery of water or fire extinguishing chemicals where needed. China’s leading autonomous aerial vehicle technology platform company, eHang, has developed the 216F drone which can carry 150 litres of water or foam to an altitude of 600 metres. The drone also carries six fire extinguishing missiles carrying ABC super fine powder, which also act as window breakers. Fitted with autopilot, these drones can be remotely dispatched for first response, to collect data before firefighters even arrive on scene.

Aerones, a wind turbine maintenance company based in Riga, Latvia, have developed a drone which can lift up to 200kg and lift a fire hose 900 metres high. Initially designed for cleaning & inspecting wind turbines – where the drone would reach heights of 900 metres, the system has been trialled by local fire and rescue teams and has been proven to be effective at fighting fires at 400- 500 metres. Similar designs are in use in South Korea, the UAE and China.

Drones which can lift a fire hose several hundred feet are capable of lifting challenging payloads, and there are companies testing their equipment in the rescue of casualties, developing systems similar to SAR winch equipment, where a casualty is lifted from below the drone with the use of a sling and cable. In South Korea they are testing a system where a casualty on a stretcher can be loaded on top of a large drone, which then transports them to safety. In China a group of researchers are developing the Net Guard Drone, which could be deployed to rescue people from tall buildings. This is a Quad Copter drone, which can separate into four separate units, carrying a large strong mesh

Researchers at the University of Genoa have developed a swarm system for drones involved in firefighting. The proposed system uses a swarm of drones, which work together to deliver a payload of water to fires in remote locations, the ability to deliver a constant supply of water to extinguish the fire has a significant advantage on more traditional, manned aerial extinguishing methods, where water is often dropped, and then the fire left unattended for some time while the aircraft refill their tanks. With the drone swarm, some drones are back at base refilling, while others are en-route and dropping their load.

Similar research is taking place in the UK, where the drones used in search and rescue are being given more power by deploying and coordinating more of them in a swarm. As well as the swarm being used to detect missing people over large areas in a short amount of time cutting down on the amount of man hours used in a search, they can also be used to survey and assess the structural soundness of a building to provide emergency services with more confidence when working in a burning or collapsed building. Also in the UK, a projected called Gold Dragon run in partnership with the Welsh Ambulance Service and ARPAS-UK has completed proof-of-concept to deliver a mini defibrillator to remote or rural locations which ambulances can find hard to reach.

With a shortage of specialist aircraft available for firefighting, combined with an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires, it seems that the use of unmanned, easy to adapt and easy to fly aerial response craft such as drone is a real game changer for the industry and the services who use them. Pilots of aerial firefighting aircraft are normally expected to have several thousands of hours of flying under their belt, as well as a commercial pilot’s licence, but London Fire Brigade, for example, only require their drone pilots to have undergone a week’s training before they can operate a drone on sight – with options to take further specialist training such as night flying. In addition to this, many countries use the multi-role for a vast variety of emergencies.

De Havilland Dash 8-400MRE aircraft have been used in France for over 15 years, they have been used to fight wildfires, transport medical supplies and personnel and have assisted in the evacuation of people from disaster situations and are incredibly versatile. But many countries use older legacy aircraft which consist of ex commercial aircraft retrofitted for firefighting, which have a forecast damage rate factor in excess of 20 cycles for every single aerial firefighting cycle flown. This is because whereas the De Havilland aircraft were specifically designed to handle the stresses of the kind of flying, landing and refilling a large tank of water required, these other aircraft are not and as well as the age of the aircraft when they are retrofitted, this also shortens their life span.

While there are benefits to having manned aircraft in the future such as range and speed, in many cases, drones could provide a more affordable, a more scalable solution when it comes to combating fires in many locations.

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