The Menlo Park Fire Protection District in California’s Silicon Valley is making drones an essential tool for first responders.
Imagine a siren-screaming, red fire truck filled with first responders leaving the station for a two-alarm blaze. The battalion chief gives the order to unleash a drone nested near the incident as the truck zigzags through thick traffic.
The captain, sitting in the right front seat, taps his mobile device, flipping through a live video feed from the drone hovering above the inferno. Vivid images, including 3D heat maps, help him identify the fire’s source, dangerous hotspots and hazardous materials.
Arriving at the scene, the captain shows all the data to the commander, who in a split-second shouts out logistics for his platoon to rescue victims and contain the fire in the quickest, safest way.
This futuristic scenario could become protocol for fire departments across the nation when the Menlo Park Fire Protection District completes their vision. They’ve already shown how drones bring situational awareness to a grassfire in East Palo Alto, a forest fire in Yosemite National Park, a search for missing kayakers in the San Francisco Bay and a flood threatening to block busy Highway 101.
“Drones have the ability to make us smarter, faster and more efficient at our jobs,” said Chris Dennebaum, a captain and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program coordinator at the Menlo Park Fire District, located in the northern part of California’s Silicon Valley.
Dennebaum credits Division Chief (now retired) Frank Fraone, Battalion Chief Tom Calvert and Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman for getting the program off the ground in October 2014. Since then, the Menlo Fire District has field tested a variety of drones and now can dispatch a drone on all three of their shifts.
He said these machines can’t save lives yet, but the information they capture and transmit helps incident commanders plan tactics and adapt to changing situations.
“We can make better, faster decisions based on the information we’re getting from the drone,” said Dennebaum.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District wants to lead how drone technology gets adopted across the U.S. First they have to prove out and document operation and safety procedures. They’ve hosted symposiums and conducted field tests with other fire districts, while working through FAA regulations and collaborating with experts in the field, including NASA and Intel.
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“Increasingly you see things beyond just a guy piloting a drone by hand,” said Dennebaum, who manages the fire district’s UAV lab, where he treats nearly a dozen different types of drones with the same rigorous care given to fire trucks and other fire equipment.
His team has big ideas, like deploying a network of nested drones stationed throughout the district. Each drone could quickly “auto launch” and respond to nearby incidents.
“We envision a future when we get a call, not a medical call, but a traffic accident, a fire or hazardous materials incident, and the nest slides open, the drone automatically launches without human interaction and flies to a GPS location, where it starts giving us real-time data about the incident.”
The ecosystem of nested drones could automatically enlist a fresh drone to replace an active duty drone that’s running out of battery power, said Dennebaum.
He said dispatching drones to a scene could bring great efficiencies, helping fire departments escalate and de-escalate responses based on information that can equate to the overall safety of the public.
“It’s a great tool now for situational awareness, but it’s where this technology is going and how we can shape what it means for the future of fire service that’s really motivating us.”
The fire district wants to use drones to reliably transmit sensor data and real-time tracking information about each firefighter involved in an incident. They even want to launch a drone from a moving vehicle when necessary, then have it land safely on the same or another moving vehicle.
Dennebaum said someday drones might deliver defibrillators, life vests or medicine during emergencies.
Testing, Learning and Codifying
This summer, the Menlo Park UAV team began testing a new commercial-grade drone, the Intel Falcon 8+ system.
“It’s designed for anything that requires robustness, stability or safe operations,” said Ketan Bhat, director of Intel’s Drone Program office.
Powered by eight motors and propellers, the yellow and black V-shaped commercial drone can support a 36-megapixel camera for surveying and mapping or infrared camera for inspections. It’s built with automated redundancies that keep the drone functioning safely, even if one or two motors stop.
Bhat said the Falcon 8+ can fly through high wind conditions, heavy dust, and high or low temperatures. It can even hover close to cell towers or electrical lines without magnetic or radio frequency interference to the compass and other sensors onboard.
“There are sensors throughout the drone, so it can tell the functional status of the done, like the motors are running hot or the video control temperature is high and may impact video quality, prompting the operator to move back or return to its landing spot,” said Bhat.
Calibrated sensors allow it to take off and land on moving objects. The V-shaped body design helps ensure unobstructed data capture, allowing the camera to provide greater than 180 degree views from above or below an object like a bridge.
These are built-in capabilities the Menlo Park Fire District said they are keen on using.
“Weatherproofing is important,” said Dennebaum. “And the Falcon 8+ has a robust datalink, which is important for transmitting images and video. [With other drones], we’ve seen lots of problems with lost wireless data transmission and poor quality video streams.”
Data Ecosystem for Drones
Even before working with Intel, Dennebaum began thinking of how to leverage what a drone can do and combine it with computing power.
“What you do with that data is intriguing to me,” he said.
Dennebaum said he’d like to someday help his district build an ecosystem that pulls together different data, one that can layer different data streams into one screen. That data would come from one or a fleet of drones and from existing data such as GPS, maps and other public safety information.
“We need to be able to track people better in a building and on fire scenes. A drone can become a key piece of that.”
He said telemetry from breathing apparatus packs could provide location, amount of air remaining and body temperature, which could then be gathered through a drone as a central data hub that feeds back to the incident commander.
“That kind of innovation would be game changing for the fire service,” he said. “Drones with thermal cameras keeping watch over our people would give us another level of safety.”