First Responders Tap into UAS Technology for Improved Situational Awareness, Safety
Tuesday, September 25, 2018 | Comments
Just a few years ago, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) were mostly a curiosity when it came to public-safety communications. A few agencies had adopted the technology, but drones were generally more directly associated with the military or recreational users.

During the past few years, however, as more agencies and businesses have adopted the technology, public safety has given the technology a second look and put it to use in a variety of applications.

When Richard Davis, assistant fire chief for the Austin (Texas) Fire Department (AFD), began setting up a UAS program, many around him dismissed the technology as a gimmick or a toy and said it wouldn’t be useful for firefighting operations.

AFD’s Robotics Emergency Deployment (RED) now has 22 members and provides a variety of important services that improve situational awareness in firefighting operations.

In Florida, the Southern Manatee Fire Rescue District uses UAS in hazardous materials (HAZMAT) situations to reduce risks to first responders and provide information before entering a dangerous environment.

Some communications providers, such as AT&T, are using the technology as a way to extend communications in areas hit by natural disasters or remote areas.

While UAS, or drone, technology has been around for a while, it began taking off in the public-safety and business arenas in 2014, said Ryan English, CEO and cofounder of FlyMotion, which supports agencies in developing and operating drone programs. Prior to that, the technology was mostly contained to military applications or recreational users.

“As the equipment cost has come down, that has been a big contributing factor [in the growth of drones],” said English.

Davis, who leads the Austin Fire Department’s RED team, also pointed to improvements in the technology as a factor in helping drive the use of drones. Improved battery technology allows for longer flights, and interchangeable parts allow organizations to customize UASs to different applications by switching out different payloads. The success of early adopters has also helped propel further adoption of the technology.

“A lot of these departments talk to one another, and they see that it’s useful and they want to start it and look to employ it,” said English.

UAS Program Development
When it first started its UAS program in 2015, Southern Manatee was the only department in the area that had the technology, but as other agencies saw what the fire department was doing, several other agencies adopted UAS technology, said firefighter Rich Gatanis, who helped set up the department’s program.

A challenge for both fire departments in developing their programs was the lack of available information about the technology, governance and more. That has changed as more departments have adopted the technology. Davis and Gatanis regularly answer questions about their programs from other departments.

Another major challenge was selling the technology to both local government and the public.

“That’s the most difficult task,” said Davis. “You can have all the ideas and all the policies, but if you can’t get beyond that, everything else is moot.”

Aware of the negative connotations around drones at the time, Davis was deliberate in developing and designing the RED team’s brand. He chose the acronym RED because many people associate the color red with fire departments and developed a logo, including Pegasus, the flying horse from Greek mythology, that he felt described the program well so that people knew what the team was about as soon as it arrived on scene.

Davis also created a diverse team comprised of many different ages, genders and ethnicities to gain a well-rounded perspective on AFD’s RED team.

“Ideas come from anyone and everyone, and I want to look at all the angles of the program,” Davis said.

For both departments, transparency in drone operations was a key component in selling the program to the public and helping alleviate any privacy or other concerns surrounding the technology. Both departments hold demonstrations for the public and post videos on Youtube that show how the programs work.

“When people see it saves time and it saves money, they see the value of it,” Gatanis said. “Most people see it less as a threat and more as a tool.”

In addition to saving time and money, the technology also keeps first responders safer. In HAZMAT situations, the drones help Southern Manatee detect radiation or gas leaks and determine the number of victims, giving first responders greater situational awareness before entering a dangerous incident area, Gatanis said.

AFD originally started its program as an easier way to perform damage assessments following disasters but now uses UAS in a variety of ways that reduce the risk to firefighters and provide greater situational awareness.

For example, the department deploys UAS during prescribed burns to give commanders better insight into operations. The aerial view allows the command staff to ensure the fire is staying where it should be and to monitor where all crew members are during the burn.

The department has also used the technology during wildfires, flooding, and search-and-rescue efforts and to determine the location of downed power lines.

Supporting Communications
The technology can also be used to support communications during or after disasters. AT&T has a fleet of drones that it deployed following large recent hurricanes such as Irma and Florence. Called a cell on wings (COW), AT&T’s UAS carry several radios that can be used to replace damaged or destroyed sites following a natural disaster.

Following this month’s Hurricane Florence, the office of a regional carrier in Wilmington, North Carolina, that AT&T tied into flooded, affecting several of AT&Ts towers. While those towers were down, one of the company’s COWs provided communications in the area, said Art Pregler, UAS program director for AT&T.

When the COWs are providing communications support, they essentially act as a tower on the network, meaning that they provide the same services a user is accustomed to. For example, first responders with priority or pre-emption still maintain that status even as the network is routing through the drone, Pregler said.

So far, AT&T’s COW fleet has only been used in in hurricane situations, but the company foresees using the technology in a variety of scenarios including forest fires and mudslides, Pregler said. The company also uses them to inspect towers, decreasing risk to workers by reducing the number of tower climbs each year.

UAS Innovations
In addition to communications support, AT&T is testing other applications in which it can use its UAS fleet. The company tested delivering medicine using a smartbox attached to a UAS in Puerto Rico. The smartbox was connected to AT&T’s network, providing information such as the location of the package, the temperature inside the box and whether the box has been tampered with.

The initial test allowed crews to make a delivery several miles away, and as UAS battery technology improves, deliveries of up to 30 miles away could be possible, Pregler said. Additionally, the UAS could be used to deliver other items as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tweaks its UAS weight regulations.

Southern Manatee UAS pilots have begun using Epson’s Moverio smart glasses in their operations. The glasses take all of the UAS information normally displayed on a tablet or laptop computer and projects it onto the glasses, allowing pilots to keep their eyes up on the sky and UAS, said Mike Leyva, Moverio product manager.

“You get really saturated with information when you’re piloting, and [the glasses] takes one of those issues out of flying it,” said Gatanis.

Southern Manatee is also building a new HAZMAT vehicle that seamlessly integrates drone operations. The vehicle will include compartments for the UAS with rollup doors, allowing quicker deployment than the cases the fire department currently uses. The vehicle will also include integrated screens to ensure easier deployment and set up of UAS.

Those involved in the drone programs expect to continue to see more innovation as the technology evolves and more people adopt it.

“This is a technology that’s here to stay,” said English. “It’s a very useable technology, and it can really change the way that things are done.”

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Comments
On 9/27/18, Ellis Boothe said:
I would like to find out more information about this and the possibility of purchasing such equipment.

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